Power, funding of new police oversight commission to be decided

Philadelphia Police Headquarters
A new oversight commission will be established to monitor the Philadelphia Police Department, after voters approved it this month.
Wikimedia Commons

By this summer, City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. hopes a new organization will be keeping a watch on the Philadelphia Police Department.

Voters earlier this month overwhelmingly approved a ballot question establishing the Citizens Police Oversight Commission, enshrining the body into the city’s charter.

What the commission will look like — its powers and funding — will be determined over the coming months during public hearings and meetings with stakeholders, Jones said.

He introduced legislation to put the proposal on the ballot after the death of George Floyd at the hands of officers in Minnesota.

Since then, Philadelphia has had its own controversial police shooting, that of Walter Wallace Jr., who was killed Oct. 26.

Jones said the new commission, if it had been established, could have examined the PPD’s taser availability and how officers handle people dealing with mental health problems, two issues that have emerged in the wake of Wallace’s shooting.

Council will examine the oversight agencies developed by other cities, Jones said, but members will also consider Philadelphia’s unique needs.

“We have to kind of tailor make something for Philadelphia,” he told Metro.

It’s presumed the body will have more authority than the current oversight board, the Police Advisory Council.

Earlier this week, the PAC, which will be dissolved when the new commission is formed, released its own recommendations for the CPOC.

It called for the organization to have the power and capacity to investigate all use of force incidents and all situations that end with a civilian being injured. The commission should also have the ability to appeal disciplinary decisions, the PAC said.

In addition, it said CPOC should be able to reopen settled lawsuits involving officers, review closed PPD Internal Affairs cases and have access to all police documents, including body-worn camera footage.

It should have at least six divisions, including two investigation units, and receive at least 1% of the PPD’s budget, which currently stands at over $700 million. Ideally, the commission would get 1.5 to 2%, according to the recommendations.

Under the PAC’s proposal, CPOC would have a budget of nearly $9.5 million and a staff of 112, including 55 investigators.

PAC leaders said the plan, which was submitted to council, was based on models used in Chicago, New York and other large cities.

“That is one proposal,” Jones said. “We’re going to look at what our budget can sustain.”

“So rather than put a price tag on a car we haven’t built yet, we’re going to wait until we see how many investigators, what their authorities, powers and procedures will be, before we say what it costs,” he added.

Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson, left, and Curtis Jones Jr. during a council hearing. CHARLES MOSTOLLER

PAC’s budget was slashed to a bit over $500,000 as a part of coronavirus-related budget cuts, and its staff was trimmed from 10 to 7.

There’s $400,000 earmarked in this year’s budget for the creation of CPOC, and Jones said the goal is for the commission to be fully funded and up-and-running by July, the start of the city’s next fiscal year.

Jones said reforms to police policies and procedures are just as important as oversight.

Council and Mayor Jim Kenney embarked on a police reform agenda following massive Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.

Among the initiatives was council legislation banning chokeholds and a bill creating a public meeting process surrounding contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police, the labor union representing officers.

The first of those council hearings is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Jones said his desire for CPOC is that it will facilitate a transparent, fair and timely process for the resolution of police-related complaints. It should have the respect of criminal justice advocates, residents and officers, he added.

No matter its structure, its “teeth” will come from the public, Jones said, which will put pressure on PPD and city leaders if they go against the commission’s findings.

“If there is a fair process that everybody respects, if the recommendation is to dismiss an officer and you don’t, then that will beg the question of why,” Jones said.

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