Police shooting interrupts hearing on proposed police oversight commission

City Councilman Curtis Jones. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

City Councilman Curtis Jones. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Reverend Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church broke the news of a police shooting in West Philadelphia to members of the Special Committee on Criminal Justice Reform while providing testimony during a hearing on police oversight in the city.

According to reports, police officers shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., as he approached officers while wielding a knife. Video of the incident circulated online. Tyler bemoaned the fact the police did not use another tactic to deescalate the situation.

“It’s moments like this that remind us the importance of the work of police oversight,” said Tyler, before announcing he was heading to the scene. “I‘m just at a loss right now.”

Wallace, 27, was a father and had a twin. His father, Walter Wallace Sr., said that his son was struggling with mental health issues.

As neighbors in Cobbs Creek began protesting another Black man’s death at the hands of police, Council was discussing a proposed overhaul and rebranding of Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission via a measure on the ballot this Election Day. The measure asks if the Home Rule Charter should be amended to create a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, and if City Council should be authorized to determine the composition, powers and duties of the Commission.

Councilmember Curtis Jones, who chairs the Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, addressed the timing of the unfortunate event.

“The irony is not lost on me that while this special committee on criminal justice reform is having this most important hearing to talk about the establishment of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission … a young man in Southwest Philadelphia was shot to death and the circumstance we don’t have a lot of details on,” said Jones. “My heart is heavy right now, but my resolve to see this commission move forward has just been intensified.”

Before Tyler’s testimony, community members explored how a new oversight commission could create more accountability for law enforcement. Testimonies called for increased autonomy and independence.

During his testimony, Carlos Rendon, a constituent services representative for Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, suggested members go through Police Academy training like a recruit to better understand the split-second decisions police officers make that can result in death. This way, committee members can offer useful input at the training level.

“I believe this vital in the committee’s role to serve as a liaison between the Police Department and the community as they can better explain how they came to certain determinations and suggestions,” he said.

The commission comes under new leadership during a critical juncture. Former executive director Hans Menos left the commission last week to take a position at the Center for Policing Equity, a national advocacy group that partners with police departments to address inequality in law enforcement.

Anthony Erace, who served with Menos as the former deputy executive director of the commission, took over as the new acting executive director.

The commission’s funding was slashed from $668,000 to $540,000 due to citywide financial woes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2018 approved ballot measure sets the floor for the commission’s budget at $500,000.

In response to the cuts, the commission cut three employees, resulting in a staff of seven — now six with Menos’ departure — overlooking a 6,500-member police department, with a $727 million budget, Billy Penn reported earlier this month.

Jones wants to see the commission receive more consistent funding. Some form of police auditing has been around in the city for close to three decades, but “it has had a rollercoaster of ups and downs,” he noted.

“What we hope to do is establish consistency,” Jones said. “We hope to establish a dedicated funding stream and some independence from the political wills and executive orders so that there is predictability as to where citizens can register a complaint, where citizens can have that complaint heard, and where the public can, in a transparent manner, view those complaints to their conclusion.”

The ballot measure is one of several council efforts looking to reel in unjust policing. A resolution introduced by Councilmember Helen Gym and her fellow members on the Public Safety Committee introduced a proposal that would ban the police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other “less lethal munitions” during protests. That bill is scheduled for a vote this Thursday.

Mayor Jim Kenney, last month, signed two of the reform bills into law. One would require public input during collective bargaining between the city and the police department during contract negotiations. The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 sued the city earlier this month to block that measure from taking hold, arguing that it unfairly singles out the law enforcement union. The second would ban the use of chokehold or restraints that can lead to asphyxiation and has not faced a public challenge from the FOP.

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