Nominees for Philly’s new police oversight board introduced themselves at a Monday night virtual town hall, and for the most part, they were hailed as the new watchdogs the city needs.
The nine prospective commissioners for the new Citizens Police Oversight Commission, or CPOC, were chosen from a pool of over 320 applicants by a board approved by City Council and the Mayor Jim Kenney. Five months after the selection process began, Monday’s meeting was a chance for the public to weigh in. You can read more about each person below.
An audience member did raise questions about one potential board member.
Nancy Nguyen, director of the social justice nonprofit VietLEAD, said the nomination of Allan Wong, a longtime member of the Philadelphia Police Asian American Advisory Committee, was “a source of great pain and concern” for members of the community. She also connected Wong to a racist post circulating on WeChat. Wong defended his work for Philly’s Asian American community over the years, and said he was only interacting with the WeChat post to correct disinformation.
Both Wong and Nguyen spoke at length about the issue, and were eventually cut off by the moderator, so others had time to comment.
The allegations came during a two-hour meeting that was largely filled with encouragement and introductory questions for those selected to serve on the new agency, which was created in the wake of the 2020 protest movement.
What’s different about the new board?
During the wave of activism that followed the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others, over a dozen City Council members wrote a letter to the mayor seeking to address a “crisis of legitimacy” between citizens and the Philadelphia Police Department. They called for a “fully resourced, independent police oversight, including authority to conduct contemporaneous, independent review of civilian complaints and use-of-force incidents.”
The city’s pre-existing oversight board, the Police Advisory Commission, was created in 1993 as a check on police misconduct after Philadelphia went without a watchdog board for two and a half decades. But it was largely seen as toothless. It had a relatively meager budget — less than $600,000, most recently — and no real subpoena power.
Philly voters approved dissolving the old board in favor of something new via ballot question in November 2020, and in May 2021, Council passed the bill that would create the CPOC. Nominees were announced last week.
The new board can initiate its own investigations, with or without a formal complaint, while the old board could only forward complaints to police. It will also have a say in what charges are brought against officers if its investigations reach that point, instead of that being left solely to the PPD Charging Unit.
Historically, most officers accused of misconduct have been able to retain their jobs no matter their offenses, thanks to the arbitration process written into the contract negotiated by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 union.
Now, police leadership must confer more directly with the CPOC about disciplinary actions. If the police commissioner wants to take action different from the board’s recommendations, they must be explained in writing. Similarly, when the department drops charges or enters a guilty plea in a misconduct case, it also must explain why in writing, and the commission can mount objections.
Next step in the formation of the new board is for City Council to confirm the nominees, currently set to happen in March or April.
The nine Philadelphians nominated to sit on the first Citizens Police Oversight Commission come from a variety of backgrounds and bring a diverse set of experiences to the table. Scroll down to learn more about them.
Philadelphia Citizens Police Oversight Commission nominees
24th Police District
Maryelis Santiago is a Harrowgate resident, longtime volunteer, and a professional in the public and nonprofit sectors. Santiago has coordinated supplier relationships and contracts with small businesses for the school district, and worked as a user experience director for the city’s Philly311 mobile app, among other roles in her public sector career. Currently, she’s Director of Family & Community Engagement at Esperanza Cyber Charter School.
39th Police District
John Solomon is a North Philly native who, after being a participant in community violence, started Endangered Kind, a nonprofit founded to “rebuild those that have been abandoned in the streets.” Endangered Kind specializes in Peer Support Services, Safety Intervention and providing resources to those seeking to avoid violence and be a positive influence in their neighborhood.
12th Police District
Jahlee Hatchett is the attorney advisor for the SEPTA Transit Police Department, president-elect of the Barristers’ Association of Philadelphia, a former assistant district attorney, and a member of SEPTA’s Diversity, Equity and Belonging Council. Born and raised in Philly, he served two separate stints at the District Attorney’s Office, first as part of a serious crimes unit between 2012 and 2016, then as a member of the Special Investigations Unit working public corruption cases from 2017 to 2018.
9th Police District
Benjamin Lerner is a former judge in the Court of Common Pleas, serving from 1996 to 2019. From 1975 through 1990, Lerner served as chief defender for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. He was the calendar judge for homicides for 15 years, meaning he was responsible for pretrial hearings, including motions and scheduling, in all homicide cases.
16th Police District
Haakim Peay is the youngest nominee. He’s an assistant manager at the business consulting firm Empire Management Group, and a graduate business student at Morehouse College. At the town hall, Peay called the protests of 2020 an eye-opening experience where he learned more about his peers’ lack of trust in the police, and said that his goal as a member of the commission would be to help “youth lead from the front.”
Rosaura Torres Thomas
15th Police District
Rosaura Torres Thomas described growing up in Philly surrounded by gang violence in the late 1960s. In 2010, she published an autobiography called “Abuse Hidden Behind the Badge,” about her experience as a victim of domestic violence at the hands of a police officer. She said she believes the board is “going to get attacked” by those who disapprove of police oversight measures, and that advocates for CPOC’s work ought to acknowledge that. Pledging herself to advocate for women scared to speak up about police-involved domestic violence, she said the board’s duty was to be their “eyes and ears.”
19th Police District
Hassan Bennett was one of several Philadelphians to recently be exonerated after a wrongful conviction. After serving 12 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit, Bennett represented himself in his retrial and won his freedom. Since then, he’s worked as a bail navigator with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, helping people caught in the system like he was.
3rd Police District
Allan Wong is a retired pharmaceutical chemist and member of the Philadelphia Police Asian American Advisory Committee. Wong also served on former Mayor Michael Nutter’s Commission on Asian American Affairs, and mentioned work with a multicultural outreach program with the Philly division of the FBI in his introductory remarks.
35th Police District
Melanie DeBouse is the pastor of the congregation at Evangel Chapel. A longtime figure in the city’s Black clergy, she’s been present at many flashpoint moments of interfaith organizing for civil rights, and works steadily in North Philly. She was excited to be selected, saying “I hope that we will all have the opportunity to stand in the gap and make demands for transparency, accountability, and use the investigatory powers of this commission to really make a difference.”