The police commissioner's conference room in the Philadelphia Public Services Building. (Erin Blewett for Billy Penn)

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The third question Philly voters will see on the May primary ballot has to do with the city’s relatively new police oversight body: the Citizens Police Oversight Commission. 

After being established through a November 2020 ballot question as replacement for the relatively toothless Police Advisory Commission, the CPOC commissioners held their first executive meeting about a year ago. 

The body is tasked with boosting transparency of the police department, investigating claims and complaints of police misconduct or violence, overseeing and advising police on their conduct with residents, and helping improve police-community relations. 

Now, concerns about the pace of staffing up have led to a request to change the city’s charter, to remove civil service requirements for the positions.

What you’ll see on the ballot

Should The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to make employees of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission exempt from civil service hiring requirements?

What it means   

Councilmember Curtis Jones sponsored the charter change and has been CPOC’s closest point of contact on Council. During a February Law and Government Committee hearing, he referenced the murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis when explaining the legislation. 

“Had that happened on our streets our oversight commission would not be prepared, at this point, to review that case, to examine those facts. Why? Because they cannot hire people at a quicker clip,” Jones said. 

Philly’s civil service application and hiring process has been the subject of much ire and research, for the amount of time it can take to onboard workers and how it contributes to the shortage of city workers. 

Jones met last fall to discuss the charter change with CPOC Interim Executive Director Anthony Erace — who was hired by the Police Advisory Commission but retained to help staff up the new board. It was spurred in part by the educational requirements and salary caps imposed by the civil service system, said Anthony Glass, Jones’s director of legislation and policy. 

Removing civil service requirements for a given gig could mean that “the commission would not be able to look at candidates that may have a more diverse educational background like highly specific work experience,” Glass told Billy Penn. “In building a new oversight agency, flexibility to hire the right staff is key.”

Notes from an April CPOC public meeting mention that building out an investigative unit for the body — which already has policy, community outreach, and administrative staff — is an ongoing project. 

Here is what that unit could consist of, according to comments by Erace:

  • A director of administrative prosecutions
  • Two administrative prosecutors to be a part of Police Board of Inquiry hearings
  • Four investigators

Elder Melanie Dubose, a commissioner and pastor at Evangel Chapel in North Philly, proffered an additional point of focus for the agency-wide exemption from civil service requirements during a recent public meeting. 

“In hiring the positions that the commissioners were tasked [with hiring], we found that the process was lengthy and arduous because of the civil service criteria,” Dubose told Billy Penn. “But some of the lower positions that the staff have been able to hire [are] able to do that more expeditiously — so we were just trying to ask about balance to the process.” 

More from Billy Penn

Who’s for it 

The bulk of City Council, which approved Jones’s legislation in a 13-1 vote. 

Who’s against it

Councilmember Brian O’Neill was the sole member of Council to vote against the measure. 

Pat Christmas, policy director for the good government group Committee of Seventy — which does not publish “yes/no” statements on ballot questions — submitted testimony to Council suggesting that the Committee on Law and Government hold back the legislation, “while reconsidering other avenues” to deal with hiring issues. 

Christmas noted that the change would be “the second agency-specific carveout” from civil service requirements in less than a year, referencing a series of carveouts for deputies in the Department of Aviation created by vote last fall.

“Our overarching concern is the challenge in recruiting, hiring and retaining a qualified workforce reflective of the city, part of which is due to a decades-old civil service system in need of reform,” Christmas told Billy Penn.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...