Philadelphia City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. introduced a resolution Thursday aimed at improving the city’s Police Advisory Commission, a body largely branded ineffective.
“Not that it’s a bad thing, but we could make it better,” said Jones, the Fourth District Councilperson and Majority Leader.
Created by mayoral executive order in 1994, the PAC is the city’s official civilian oversight agency for the Philadelphia Police Department and is primarily charged with investigating citizen complaints of police misconduct.
The board does not have the power to take direct action against a particular officer. It can only make recommendations, which may or may not be heeded by the department.
Jones, who chairs Council’s Committee on Public Safety, wants to amend the city’s charter to create an independent and permanent agency that has greater accountability and influence.
It’s hoped, among other things, that his proposal will help speed up the time it takes for complaints to be resolved. The PAC currently has a backlog of 129 cases, some of which date back to 2009.
“It’s not good when someone registers a complaint and for years it goes unanswered. It’s not good when an officer is accused and can’t get swift decisions from a body,” said Jones.
Under Jones’ plan, the PAC would consist of 17 members, up from 14.
Each of the city’s 10 District Councilmembers would appoint an individual. The District Attorney, Public Defender, Police Commissioner and Youth Commissioner would also make an appointment. The Mayor would make three.
The commission would have to respond to complaints of police misconduct within seven days of receiving them and share detailed annual reports summarizing its actions with city officials and the public.
The charter change also calls for the PAC to be adequately funded – the commission could petition Common Pleas Court if it feels it’s not.
Funding and staffing
It’s an issue that PAC Executive Director William Johnson said is a major hurdle when it comes to resolving cases quickly. At its peak, the commission had a budget of $390,000, he said. It’s now $290,000.
That dip has translated, in part, into fewer employees, including one less investigator. The agency currently has two.
“We must have more people to address whatever case flow we might have,” said Johnson, noting that he’d need about 10 to 15 investigators to sufficiently field the approximately 200 complaints that are filed on average each year.
The alternative is focusing on the more serious allegations that come across his desk. “By virtue of the lack of manpower it almost has to be that way,” he said.
Johnson said he generally supports Jones’ push to make the agency independent and permanent.
‘We need to deliver a little bit’
Ronda Goldfein, however, who chairs the commission’s volunteer board, isn’t convinced yet that that’s what the agency needs to be more effective.
That said, Goldfein is not against Jones’ initiative, but thinks the commission should first take a look at itself to see what’s gumming up the works when it comes to addressing complaints. She said the PAC is in the process of quantifying cases to that end.
“Before we ask to be recognized in a different way, to have additional authority, to be given more certainty in our existence, I feel we need to deliver a little bit,” said Goldfein. “Let’s restore faith and trust in the commission.”
It’s not clear yet if Mayor Michael Nutter supports Jones’ proposal. It was Nutter who pushed for the PAC’s creation nearly 20 years ago when he was the Fourth District Councilperson.
“The Administration has discussed the PAC issues with the Councilman but there is no agreement at this time regarding a charter change bill,” Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald wrote in an email.
The Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s labor union for police officers, is expected to strongly oppose Jones’ efforts. NewsWorks was unable to reach FOP President John McNesby for comment.
The resolution has been sent to committee for consideration.