‘The citizen’s voice’: How Philadelphia voters created a new police oversight agency

Written by on November 25, 2020

By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat

Louise Grant takes extra steps to protect her son. She is the caretaker for the 41-year-old schizophrenic and worries that if she needs to call for assistance, the police may arrive unprepared. That’s why she wants everyone in her position to do what she did — register him within her local police district.

“So if a call comes from your home, the 911 knows what they’re coming out to deal with,” she said last week to a Zoom room full of public officials representing city police and the agency tasked with its oversight. “And sometimes it alleviates the police walking in blindly.”

Grant’s fears aren’t surprising. The memory of the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. on October 26 is still fresh in the minds of Philadelphians. Wallace had suffered a severe mental health breakdown when two city police officers were called to the site outside his family home in West Philadelphia in response to a report of a man with a knife. After several attempts to get Wallace to drop the knife, the officers fired numerous shots at him.

It’s also part of the reason why 509,933 Philadelphians — over two-thirds of those who voted in the city during the national election — said yes to replacing the chronically underfunded Police Advisory Commission (PAC) that oversees police conduct in the city, with a new Citizen Police Oversight Commission (CPOC). 

And why, almost two weeks after Election Day, 90 Philadelphians huddled over a Zoom call organized by the PAC to discuss the formation of the new agency. They gave their suggestions to PAC staff and Special Advisor to the Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Francis Healy.

‘We have a much broader category of crisis’

“We’ve been working for several years on creating a co-responding program and we embedded a mental health clinician in police radio,” Healy said during the Zoom call last week. Even before Wallace’s killing, the Police Department had begun to explore a restructuring of 911-response, he claimed. 

The goal is to have a select few crisis intervention-trained (CIT) police officers in the field who are teamed up with mental health clinicians who can then respond to crisis calls as a team. Healy noted that this is in addition to the 3,100 Philadelphia police officers who are already crisis-intervention trained. 

During the meeting, community members weighed in on the importance of expanding the definition of ‘a crisis’ and creating internal tools for the police department and the mental health clinician partners to identify crisis calls in the first place.

“It’s easy to say someone is off their meds but we have a much broader category of crisis so police officers can respond [appropriately] and shift gears faster,” said Healy. 

The Philadelphia Police Department usually conducts about six CIT classes per year, but they’re not mandatory. Officers in the city must volunteer to enroll. Despite that, Healy says enrollment is always at or close to full capacity.

During the meeting, local activist and community member Bilal Qayyum asked how the outcomes of CIT training are tracked by city police and if they collect data on how often police officers in the city actually use de-escalation tactics during crisis calls.

“There was clearly a breakdown in the officers who were trained in the police district where Wallace was killed,” said Qayyum, “and I’m wondering how those larger numbers of volunteers have used their training.”

No one really knows.

Outside of reports made to CIT coordinators after an incident happens, Healy said CIT outcomes go largely untracked. But he says that police officers use de-escalation training everyday as a part of their daily interactions with civilians. According to new reporting by Time Magazine, a large majority of police training in the U.S. is outsourced to third-party companies and “amid a growing movement toward police professionalization that started in the late 1950s, [most] states set minimum training standards but [leave it] up to individual departments to decide how to meet them.”

Philadelphia residents call for greater transparency from police

In its current structure, the PAC conducts academic research, reviews police misconduct reports within the Philadelphia Police Department, and compiles data to inform and provide recommendations for Philadelphia Police Department policies like use of force and use of body camera protocols. But the watchdog group has been critically underfunded since its inception and has lacked the authority to investigate active cases of misconduct alongside — and independent of — the police department’s Internal Affairs (IA) division.

The current Acting Executive Director of PAC, Anthony Erace, says Philadelphia residents are calling for  greater transparency when it comes to their police department. This heightened attention to law enforcement practices ramped up this summer in response to numerous acts of police brutality that took place across the country.

But the call for the new oversight committee didn’t begin this summer. This was many years in the making. Three years ago, the city government in Philadelphia significantly reorganized PAC by hiring a new executive director, Hans Menos, and dedicating staff to expand its mission. 

“Philadelphia[ns] needed an opportunity to have their voices heard,” Erace said. “I would say that police reform is not a new issue so [it] didn’t come up this summer for the first time ever but I do think this summer accelerated the motivation to get going, at least in Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia City Councilmember Curtis Jones introduced a police oversight bill to the City Council on June 11, 2020, which they passed later that month and brought forward as a ballot measure in the 2020 General Election.

Councilmember-at-large, Kendra Brooks says the City Council recognized that oversight needed a permanent place in the city’s infrastructure, and Council will determine the powers of the new civilian watchdog group.

“What we realized is that for quite some time civilians have made complaints to the Police Department that have not been met with any action or have kind of been dismissed,” said Brooks. 

“So I’m hoping with the new police oversight commission we will be able to hold police accountable for violating their roles and their duties. Their job is to serve and protect, however, we have a large number of Philadelphians who don’t necessarily feel that way.” 

‘This is a great time for civilian oversight’

As it stands right now, PAC exists under the Mayor’s Office executive order.

“Now that would change as a result of the ballot question,” said Erace. “This will be a standalone independent agency and department [and] we would permanently exist. That sort of freedom and expansion comes [with a] greater ability to impact policing for the public good and policing’s good.”

What Philadelphians are going to see is an agency that isn’t vulnerable to the influence of bipartisan party politics from changing city government administrations. Under executive order, PAC could be done away with by the Mayor’s Office. But the new oversight  commission will exist in the city’s Home Rule Charter, granting CPOC a permanent home in the city’s larger infrastructure.

While the City Council will have the final say on what the new oversight agency can do, in October of this year, Erace and former executive director Menos provided the Council with general program architecture for what oversight in Philadelphia could look like. Some of the new powers include expanding audits of Philadelphia Police Department-led investigations to ensure best practices were used to come to a decision regarding officer misconduct, creating a misconduct investigative unit that would function independently of Internal Affairs, and a community engagement unit that would focus on outreach to community members.

Angelica Hendricks is a policy analyst for the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission. She says access to information is a crucial power for any oversight agency to do their work and keep law enforcement departments accountable.

“There have been many oversight agencies that complain that when they get a complaint it’s hard to investigate it,” said Hendricks.  “It is difficult to receive information from the Philadelphia Police Department [and] it’s hard to oversee things when you have to ask the entity that you’re overseeing for information.”

Under the reformed, citizen-led oversight commission, investigative powers could include the ability to issue subpoenas, conduct independent investigations into complaints made against any member of the Philadelphia Police Department, the ability to reopen investigations that were closed by Internal Affairs, and have direct access through login credentials to internal police files like body-worn camera footage, personnel records, and discipline records.

“You’re about to see policing really ramp up and change for the better in Philadelphia,” said Erace. “With this robust oversight agency and the demand from residents for more access and transparency, this is a great time for civilian oversight.”

‘If you don’t have the funding, then you lose credibility with the public’

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. Though PAC is severely underfunded, compared to cities with similar populations, Philadelphia is doing better. The oversight board in Dallas, Texas had no budget for their civilian complaint review board until this year. And Phoenix, Arizona doesn’t even have a formal police oversight board.

Sozi Tulante served as Philadelphia’s City Solicitor from 2016 to 2018. As the City’s lawyer, he represented the Philadelphia Police Department in police arbitration proceedings during his two-year tenure. During a University of Penn Law School conference earlier this summer, he said in order for CPOC to be successful, their budget must match their ambition.

“If you have the big mission but you don’t have the funding to support it then you lose credibility with the public,” noted Tulante. “In the [City’s] Law Department I would deal with the Police Advisory Commission and they really weren’t a part of the [investigative] structure, so to speak. And [not] having their own substantial budget was a problem.”

Menos and Erace have emphasized the importance of having the new oversight agency’s budget directly connected to the city’s Police Department budget.

“The funding for CPOC should be guaranteed to be at least 1% of the Police Department’s budget,” wrote Menos and Erace. “This would ensure minimum staffing needs could be met and would itself ensure independence while insulating the city from disproportionate increases or decreases in police budgets.”

According to them, a budget of 1.5 to 2% of the Police Department’s budget will more reasonably meet this mandate. 

‘The long term goal is to break down systemic racism’

Everett Gillison, former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, does have some concerns for the longevity of the oversight commission. If CPOC doesn’t make the effort to frequently present the work they do to the community at large, the commission risks not being relevant in the public eye and losing public trust.

“I just think there’s not enough time or effort spent explaining every year what [PAC] does [and] how [they] do it,” said Gillison during the Penn Law conference earlier this summer. 

“[Public outreach] has to be part and parcel for any systemic change to last. And if it’s not, [the new oversight agency] could just go away.”

Councilmember Brooks says she hopes the new commission will continue to move the needle on police reform in the city.

“I’m hoping that this new commission can address those issues because we realize that a lot of this stuff is systemic and it’s been happening for generations,” said Brooks. “And the long term goal is to break down systemic racism.”

Ultimately Erace has a lot of faith that the vision and impact for CPOC will hold up.

The new oversight commission “is going to be a diverse group with different interests and constituencies,” said Erace. “You’re going to see a more expansive oversight agency that’s going to be better funded and have a better, more distinct authoritative voice.”

“That will be the citizen’s voice.”

 


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.

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