Should Philly revamp its ‘beyond toothless’ police oversight commission? Your vote will decide

Critics have low expectations for the chronically underfunded watchdog group.

Police academy cadets line up for graduation in 2017

Police academy cadets line up for graduation in 2017

Samantha Madera for the City of Philadelphia / Flickr
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In the upcoming election, Philadelphia voters will decide whether or not to revamp the city’s police oversight commission under a new name with yet-to-be determined powers.

Will the proposed replacement bring reform to a broken system — or be different in name only?

For decades, the Police Advisory Commission has struggled to provide large-scale accountability to the fourth largest police force in the country. It’s been hamstrung by a meager budget. It also has far fewer powers than similar watchdog boards in peer cities like New York, Chicago and New Orleans.

“The current PAC is beyond toothless,” said Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler of the POWER Interfaith, one of the groups advocating to reform the commission. “It’s laughable, and it’s embarrassing when you compare what we do in Philadelphia to other cities.”

That criticism doesn’t fall on the shoulders of PAC leadership. The issues are simple: money and access to the department’s investigative records. Right now, PAC doesn’t have much of either — and the charter referendum you’ll vote on does not guarantee improvement.

One of four yes-or-no questions on Philly’s November general election ballot, the measure seeks to replace the longstanding Police Advisory Commission (PAC) with a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, and give City Council the power to determine “composition, powers and duties.”

Council has yet to clarify what those new powers and duties will be, but Councilmember Curtis Jones says he’s looking at ways to improve the PAC and boost funding. Austerity cuts recently slashed $125,000 from PAC funding — about 18% of its budget.

PAC executive director Hans Menos supports the reform, but says only money will bring meaningful change.

“It’s the same thing I’ve been saying for years now,” said Menos, who has held the position since 2017. “If this idea is about giving the PAC more power, it has to come with a commensurate budget.”

Philly’s police oversight history, the TL;DR version

There are two currents that run through PAC’s history. The first is calls to overhaul the commission and give it more teeth, which have never gained much purchase in City Hall.

Secondly, the police department and city administration have long hamstrung commission investigations by restricting access to records and police personnel.

In 1958, then-Mayor Richardson Dilworth formed the first citizen oversight committee for the Philadelphia Police Department. That early office was tasked with independently receiving and investigating complaints against police. But a lawsuit brought by the Fraternal Order of Police in 1967 ultimately disbanded the civilian review board, returning investigations to PPD control.

The city had no official police oversight agency for nearly 30 years.

It wasn’t until 1994, when former Mayor Ed Rendell created the Police Advisory Board, that some kind of auditing returned. But the reborn watchdog was often undercut by the police department.

Punishments recommended for officers guilty of abuses were ignored or overruled by internal PPD investigators. And without enough money to fund more than a few investigators, the oversight arm could only do so much work. A single investigation can take the commission upwards of two years.

PAC’s funding woes run deeper than pandemic

The PAC’s annual budget fell from $668,700 to $540,000 following dramatic financial cuts brought on by the pandemic.

After Billy Penn and WHYY reported on the cuts in June, state lawmakers vowed to fill the $125,000 gap. Menos, the PAC director, did not have an update on the status of that extra funding.

PAC has cut three employees in part due to the budget reduction, leaving a threadbare staff of seven to monitor a 6,500-member police department.

The ballot question in the upcoming election won’t dictate funding levels for coming years, but even if lawmakers doubled the PAC’s bank account overnight, it still wouldn’t compete with other municipalities.

Some cities make oversight funding proportional to the department’s budget — if one goes up, so does the other. In New York City, the police oversight council gets 0.65% of the police department’s annual budget. The rate is even higher in Chicago, where the watchdog arm receives 1%. Other cities have a system where funding is proportionate to the number of officers on the force.

Years ago, City Council pushed to create a funding floor for the PAC of $500,000. Voters passed that ballot measure in 2018, guaranteeing that economic turbulence wouldn’t spell death for the oversight commission.

Expanding access to records could help PAC

When Kenney officials first pitched PAC reform this summer, they emphasized that the new board would have the power to subpoena the police department for information.

But the current PAC is already granted that power, under the city charter.

Thing is, the subpoenas rarely happen. Director Menos framed this as a tradition that predates his tenure. He said city agencies tend to share things upon request without need for a legal notice.

“It’s like subpoenaing my wife for bank records,” Menos said. “We’re the same entity.”

What if your spouse decides not to comply? That’s often what happens to the PAC requests.

Examples exist throughout the commission’s history, but in recent months alone, news reports discovered the Kenney administration and police department denied access to information related to two separate PAC investigations: one into the Facebook scandal, and another into a review of the June protests.

The administration’s argument against sharing: it could open the city to legal liability. Menos called this an “absurd” excuse that could be abused to shut down any outside investigation without cause.

That’s another failure of the PAC’s design, critics like Rev. Tyler say. The police oversight commission in New Orleans, for example, has direct access to some police files for its internal review.

“They don’t need to ask permission,” Tyler said. “We need an oversight board that has real teeth and the power to do investigations on their own.”

Will new commission work better? Unclear, but Council promises change

Increasing funding and expanding the PAC’s operational authority could be on the table down the line. For now, those discussions are on hold until voters decide whether or not to rebrand the commission.

Council’s involvement in the process is new. Until now, the PAC fell under the mayor’s jurisdiction.

While the legislative body has not committed to specific reforms yet, Councilmember Curtis Jones maintains that the new commission won’t look like the old one.

“We’ll have a blank slate to be able to design a commission that is actually effective, that is designed by the citizens, that is fair to the police and fair to the citizens they protect,” Jones said.

The councilmember said he is looking at funding models used by other cities — like making the PAC’s budget a fixed percentage of police department’s. The city’s next budget negotiations will begin in spring 2021.

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