By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat
Last week’s fatal, officer-involved shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man from West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood, has brought into focus a ballot question that would allow greater oversight of city police.
The officers involved in the incident are being investigated by the Philadelphia Police Department’s investigative unit. Unlike in other cities like New York and Kansas City, the role of the city’s police oversight committee will be minimal.
Cobbs Creek resident, Gail Miles, 50, was in her home the evening that protests ensued down her street in response to Wallace’s death.
“I think the PPD is overwhelmed and I don’t think they have the experience needed to serve our community,” said Miles.
She says there are significant loopholes in the current system meant to investigate police misconduct. This might change if a ballot question on Tuesday’s election passes. On Election Day, Philadelphia residents can vote to replace the chronically underfunded Police Advisory Commission (PAC) with a citizen-led oversight committee.
In its current structure, PAC reviews PPD policies, provides recommendations to the Department, and helps to oversee some of the many police misconduct complaints. But critics say they’ve severely lacked adequate investigative power.
The proposed measure will make the new Citizens Police Oversight Committee a frontline investigator, with the potential to subpoena testimony records from the PPD and give the City Council the ability to determine the composition, powers and duties of the Committee itself.
As it stands right now, all officer investigations are handled by the Police Department’s own Internal Affairs division. Complaints can be filed through PAC, and PAC staff can accompany complainants to Internal Affairs interviews and Police Board of Inquiry (PBI) hearings. But that’s only for misconduct that is reported directly to PAC. If it doesn’t come through them, they can’t oversee the investigation process at all.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw announced last week that she has directed the Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Unit to investigate the fatal shooting of Wallace. District Attorney Larry Krasner also announced that his Special Investigations Unit will investigate independently of Officer Involved Shootings.
Philadelphia is one of the many cities that doesn’t commission investigators, separate from local police departments, to examine allegations of police misconduct. And it’s a common complaint from police oversight boards that the ability to access records and data from police departments is severely limited.
Hans Menos is the former executive director of PAC.
“We’ve had investigations that we felt were important and we waited over a year to start getting information that we felt was relevant [to our work],” Menos said. “And in other cases we’ve just been told no and there’s no repercussions.”
Menos believes that for oversight to work, independent oversight bodies need to sit on the misconduct review boards. Additionally, engagement from public citizens at the front-end of investigations is crucial for transparency.
But Police Board of Inquiry hearing schedules are increasingly hard to locate, and the PBI doesn’t publish them online.
“They’ve been public for over 40 years,” said Menos. “And the fact that they’re not accessible and you can’t even understand when they occur is shameful…and it’s reasonable for people to conclude that it’s purposeful.”
Some of the issues are structural: If you want to find out about a hearing, the Philadelphia Police Department requires that you call in advance to get the schedule. But it’s common to hear anecdotal stories about people trying to access public Police Board of Inquiry hearings and being turned away by police officers at the door.
“There is an odd and consistent behavior when you arrive there,” noted Menos. “You’re questioned about how you learned about the hearing, why you’re there. You’re asked for a subpoena, ID — multiple forms [of ID] — and in some cases told the hearings are not public even when they are.”
Funding is also an issue. Currently, PAC is staffed by seven people in a city with 6,500 police officers. And they run on an annual budget of $668,000, which was significantly reduced by the city to $540,000 in the advent of the pandemic, WHYY reported last week.
“We need a healthy budget that is directly tied to a police department budget…something that can’t shift with the political winds or even a crisis,” Menos said.
Right now, PAC exists through an executive order under the Mayor’s office, which can be undone at any time at the Mayor’s discretion.
“With [covid-19] our budget got slashed…This didn’t happen in New York or Chicago where their budgets are tied to the police,” Menos said.
In New York City and Chicago, the police oversight bodies get a small annual percentage of the police department’s budget.
Philadelphia native Anthony Kamani, 62, says his childhood in the city was marked by a constant fear of the police. But the new police oversight measure on the ballot is a welcome change for the longtime resident.
“Philadelphia police have always been a terroristic threat to the Black community,” said Kamani. “And I have been waiting for the police oversight revamp in the city of Philadelphia for a long time. They’ve talked about this idea for 35 years. And nothing substantive has happened in those 35 years.”
Kamani believes the outrage over Walter Wallace Jr. ‘s death coupled with the recent police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, have gotten the ball rolling in terms of substantive police reforms in the city. But still, many members of Philadelphia’s Black community are calling for more change.
Last week, following the tragic death of Wallace, Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier spoke at an emergency Cobbs Creek community meeting at The Church of Christian Compassion.
“Police who are working in Black communities have to recognize the humanity of the Black people who live here,” said Gauthier. “We need accountability from the police. We need consequences for behavior like this.”
This story includes reporting funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.