‘This is a blank canvas’: Creating Philly’s new Citizens Police Oversight Commission

Police in riot gear meet protesters at 54th and Pine streets, barring their progress East on Pine Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Police in riot gear meet protesters at 54th and Pine streets, barring their progress East on Pine Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Amid the frenzy of mail ballot counting and a flurry of legal challenges from the Trump campaign, Philadelphia voters last week overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure giving City Council the green light to create the Citizens Police Oversight Commission, an independent body supporters say has the potential to transform policing in the country’s sixth-largest city.

For now, there are few concrete details about the new commission, including who will sit on it, how they will be selected, or what its budget will be. All of that will be finalized in the coming weeks and culminate with enabling legislation, which is necessary to establish the new commission as well as its duties and powers.

“This is a blank canvas,” said City Councilmember Curtis Jones, who expects to introduce the measure by the end of the year and hopes to see the commission operational by July.

Broadly speaking, backers of the new commission hope it can help restore public trust in the Philadelphia Police Department, especially in Black and brown communities whose residents are disproportionately stopped by officers and subjected to use of force.

They say a big part of realizing that goal hinges on having a permanent watchdog group that has enough teeth — and money — to hold the department accountable, especially when it comes to allegations of officer misconduct, an issue thrust into the spotlight in May after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and again last month after two officers fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia.

“I look forward to the possibility of that occurring,” said Paula Peebles, state chairwoman for the National Action Network, a nonprofit civil rights organization.

Budget and staffing issues

For decades, the current Police Advisory Commission, which will be replaced by the new body, has struggled to achieve lasting change, in large part because it has lacked the type of powers and funding enjoyed by similar police oversight commissions in cities such as New York and Chicago.

The budgets for those commissions are a fixed proportion of the police department’s annual budget. If the budget for the department increases, so does the commission’s budget. In New York, the police oversight council gets 0.65% of the police department’s annual budget. Chicago receives 1%.

Annual funding for Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission is not fixed, but it does have a $500,000 floor.

This year, the Police Advisory Commission’s annual budget fell from $668,700 to $540,000 as part of a slew of city cuts brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. For context, that’s a little over half of this year’s budget for the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, a city with roughly 1,200 sworn officers.

The PAC cut three positions as a result, leaving seven employees to monitor a 6,500-member police department. Last month, executive director Hans Menos stepped down after three years to become a vice president with the Center for Policing, a nationwide policy group.

Anthony Erace, the agency’s acting executive director, said six people is simply not enough staff to keep tabs on a police department the size of Philadelphia’s.

“That’s why the administration and Council have committed to expanding and supporting oversight in Philadelphia,” said Erace.

The PAC also does not have direct access to the police department’s investigative records. The agency must make a formal request for information it wants, opening the door to delays that can  hinder its investigations, something that’s happened on several occasions over the years.

The agency has subpoena powers, but it has rarely used them because city agencies are compelled to share information under the executive order that created the PAC.

“We should never have to subpoena the police department,” said Erace.

“A long and cumbersome process”

Investigations into citizen complaints of police misconduct can take up to two years in Philadelphia.

Councilmember Jones said one of his priorities for the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission is to change that, so residents — and police — can have more faith in the process.

“If I’m falsely accused, I don’t want that hanging over my head for two years, and If I’m the person driving at 2 o’clock in the morning and feel I’ve been wronged, I don’t want that hanging over my head for two years,” he said.

The Police Advisory Commission currently serves as a “safe conduit” for citizens to file complaints who may not feel comfortable going directly to the police department. They can file their complaints online, over the phone or in person with a PAC investigator.

After an interview, a complaint is sent to the police department’s Internal Affairs Division for investigation. That bureau also determines whether there is enough evidence to sustain the complaint.

If a complaint is sustained against an officer, it goes to the Police Board of Inquiry, a three-member panel of officers that essentially decides whether an officer is guilty or not guilty. The ruling is then sent to the police commissioner, who is responsible for meting out any discipline. The commissioner can also overrule the Board of Inquiry.

“Overall, it’s a long and cumbersome process,” said Erace.

In some instances, the Police Advisory Commission actively monitors the process from start to finish. That process includes sitting in on officer interviews, among other things. The agency will then audit the case. It does not, however, play any kind of decision-making role.

Jones said City Council is exploring whether the new commission can have the power to make rulings that are binding. For now, it will only be able to send recommendations to the mayor’s office for approval. If the police department follows through on a disciplinary recommendation, for example, an officer still has the opportunity to appeal the decision through grievance arbitration, a process that more often than not results in the department’s decision being overturned.

A city spokesperson said the Kenney administration, which supported the ballot measure, “looks forward to working with Council on this further.”

Through a spokesperson, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw declined an interview request about the new commission, saying it’s “too early” for the department to comment.

Building a ‘broad-based coalition’

As the Citizens Police Oversight Commission begins to take shape, community leaders are sharing their wish lists for the new body with City Council.

POWER, an interfaith social justice organization, has hosted more than a half-dozen town halls exploring the world of police oversight commissions, including how they have been implemented in other cities across the country, as well as best practices.

Melanie DuBose, a North Philly pastor who co-chairs the group’s board, said POWER wants the new commission to be rooted in independence, transparency, accountability and inclusivity.

The organization is pushing for residents to be part of the building process. Like the oversight commission in Oakland, the group would also like the new commission to have the power to hire and fire the police commissioner, authority that currently rests with the mayor.

DuBose said the Oversight Commission must also have a say when it comes to rank-and-file officers.

“The Citizens Oversight Commission has to play some role in a police officer coming into the force, their conduct while on the force, and what happens if there should be a need for them to leave the force,” she said.

“We’re gonna throw everything against the wall and hope it sticks,” added DuBose.

Other leaders say it’s critical for the commission’s members to reflect the city’s diversity — racial, but also experiential.

Sultan Ashley-Shah, vice president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network, said the commission can’t be made up of just academics and other professionals. It must also include the voices of residents familiar with the nuances of neighborhoods across the city and the varying attitudes toward policing in those neighborhoods.

“It needs to be a broad-based coalition,” said Ashley-Shah.

It’s unclear how many commissioners will be part of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission or whether they’ll be appointed or elected.

The Police Advisory Commission has nine commissioners appointed by the mayor. The current group includes a lawyer, a pharmacist, a community activist and a nonprofit researcher.

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