‘Monumental leap’: Philly Council passes bill establishing new police oversight board

The bill creates the Citizens Police Oversight Commission. Backers hope it will increase police accountability and restore trust in the police department.

Protesters marched from South Philadelphia to City Hall on June 23, 2020, demanding an end to police brutality during ongoing demonstrations in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Protesters marched from South Philadelphia to City Hall on June 23, 2020, demanding an end to police brutality during ongoing demonstrations in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council on Thursday passed a bill establishing the Citizens Police Oversight Commission, an independent and permanent watchdog group to investigate allegations of police misconduct.

City Councilmember Brian O’Neill was the lone vote against the bill. Mayor Jim Kenney is expected to sign it.

CPOC will replace the current Police Advisory Commission, a group that has long lacked the authority and funding to make lasting change.

The goal is to have the new commission operational in July.

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Backers, who have called the commission’s creation a “watershed moment” for policing in Philadelphia, hope the new group can boost police accountability and help restore public trust in the Philadelphia Police Department, especially within communities of color, where residents are disproportionately stopped by officers and subjected to use of force.

“Today we have an opportunity to build and launch a ship. But even with the passage of this ordinance, we still have to fuel that ship through properly giving it a budget, we have to find its captain, we have to find its crew so it can sail beyond our actions here today,” said City Councilmember Curtis Jones, who introduced the legislation, before Thursday’s vote.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which is actively negotiating with the city on a new contract, did not testify on the bill and has declined to comment on the legislation.

Members of the Kenney administration testified in support of the bill during a committee hearing on the measure held last week.

The vote comes roughly six months after Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure giving City Council the green light to create the Citizens Police Oversight Commission.

Jones introduced the enabling legislation in February.

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Under the bill, part of a package of police reforms introduced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, the commission would investigate all citizen complaints filed against officers and the department. The group could then recommend discipline if it found the allegations of misconduct were substantiated.

For the first time, the city’s police commissioner would have to respond to those recommendations in writing and explain why he or she did not follow through on the commission’s recommendations.

The commission would have the power to investigate allegations of physical abuse, bribery, corruption, intimidation, and harassment, as well as “any allegation that threatens the integrity of the criminal justice process,” according to the bill, including instances when an officer discharges his or her service weapon.

Under the measure, the commission could also make recommendations on any of the department’s policies and procedures, as well as hold a vote of no confidence in the police commissioner — another first.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Rev. Mark Tyler, co-director of POWER Live Free, which hosted a half-dozen community meetings on the bill, after Thursday’s vote.

“While I recognize that this is not a perfect bill, and that it will still fall short in some ways of total civilian oversight, this is a monumental leap forward. My hope is that what we have created will create a snowball in Philadelphia, so 10 years from now we’ll look back and say, ‘Wow, that was a great first step and since then, we’ve done x, y, and z to close the gap even more.’”

An independent analysis of citizen complaints filed against police officers between 2015 and 2020, first reported by WHYY News, found those officers faced formal discipline less than 1% of the time. 

If passed, the agency will consist of nine voting members picked by a five-member selection panel appointed by the mayor and City Council. Nominees for the commission must be Philadelphia residents and reflect the “diversity of the population and geography of the city.” They cannot be a current or former officer with the police department, a current or former member of a union that represents a municipal or state police department, or a current officer of a political party, according to the bill.

The commissioners, who will be compensated, will serve four-year terms. They must be trained in use-of-force protocols, the police department’s internal affairs process, and constitutional law, among other requirements.

The agency will also have a full-time staff, including an executive director and chief counsel.

Kenney’s latest budget proposal calls for nearly $10 million for the commission over the next five years, including $1.9 million for fiscal year 2022.

Jones is proposing a three-phase budget for the commission that begins with $1.9 million on July 1 and ends with an additional $13.6 million at the start of fiscal year 2023, according to a copy of the proposal obtained by WHYY.

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