The South Street Police Mini Station on the 900 block of South Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A third of commissioners on Philadelphia’s new police accountability agency resigned in protest Tuesday morning, including the board’s vice-chair.

The three resignations come just over a year after the Citizens Police Oversight Commission officially began its work. 

“It’s been a year since I was appointed to the commission,” CPOC Vice-Chair Afroza Hossain wrote in a scathing, three-page resignation letter. “In that time, particularly the last few months of 2023, it has become abundantly clear to me that this commission is dysfunctional, toxic, and unable to function as needed.”

Hossain addressed her letter to CPOC staff, City Council, and specifically Councilmember Curtis Jones, who sponsored the legislation creating the commission and has been the agency’s main legislative partner.

Here’s who is leaving:

  • Hossain, a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging/access expert working with ASHTAM Consulting Group
  • Benjamin Lerner, a former Court of Common Pleas judge and chief defender for the Defender Association of Philadelphia from 1975 to 1990.
  • Maryelis Santiago, a Harrowgate resident with public sector experience coordinating small business contracts for the school district and working as a user experience director for the Philly311 mobile app

A charter change question on the May primary ballot was intended to address some of the issues that have frustrated commissioners to date, but it failed to pass.

The CPOC was created by a November 2020 ballot question to replace what was known as the Police Advisory Commission, which had little actual power. 

Though looking forward to the opportunity to do work that was “groundbreaking and a national model,” Hossain wrote in her letter, she was disappointed that “none of it” had yet begun. “The last few months have taken a huge toll on my mental health and my personal life,” she wrote.  

The initial nine commissioners were selected out of a pool of over 320 applicants by a board approved by City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney. They essentially serve as the public face of the agency and as a publicly appointed board of directors — on a volunteer basis.

“We have to find people that are willing to go through this selection process for a job that doesn’t pay anything in order to be good public stewards, good public servants, good public guardians — and that’s a hell of a job description,” Councilmember Jones told Billy Penn.

Vacancies left by this week’s sudden resignations will take some time to fill, according to Interim CPOC Director Anthony Erace.

“Council and the administration [will seat] a selection panel that will seek replacement commissioners,” Erace said. “It will probably be a somewhat lengthy process to replace them.”

How to fix the hiring problem?

Several CPOC commissioners have expressed frustration over the pace with which they’ve been able to hire a new executive director and general counsel, the two main hiring decisions that are left to them as volunteer figureheads. 

The May ballot question that was voted down would have aided the agency’s forward momentum by waiving civil service requirements for CPOC hires, proponents said.

“In hiring the positions that the commissioners were tasked [with], we found that the process was lengthy and arduous because of the civil service criteria,” CPOC Commissioner Melanie DuBouse told Billy Penn in mid-May. 

Councilmember Jones suggested that the ballot question, which he sponsored, might’ve failed not on merit, but because of resistance to what might look like lowering standards.

“I think it’s a perception issue,” Jones told Billy Penn. “Whenever you want to remove employment from the civil service regulations that people have grown comfortable with … they are reluctant to move in that way.”

While the exemption would’ve applied to all staff, there was an emphasis on investigative positions and general counsel. Based on the salary caps imposed by civil service requirements, anyone taking these jobs would likely take a pay cut of “one third to half” compared to the private sector, per Jones. 

In her resignation letter, Hossain suggested that some of the hiring issues stemmed from disagreements between the commissioners — and potential mismanagement during the stymied hiring process.

She called out several of her fellow commissioners by name, describing “bullying” and accusations of “conspiring with staff” against their wishes.

Jahlee Hatchett, the chair of CPOC, disputed the characterization of his actions and called the bulk of the letter “just flat out lies,” only agreeing with one point raised about the search for an executive director.

“I never witnessed anything I perceived to be bullying or construed as bullying,” Hatchett told Billy Penn.

‘Anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy’

Hans Menos, who from 2017-2020 headed the Police Advisory Commission — CPOC’s predecessor — and is now VP of the triage response team at the Center for Policing Equity, told Billy Penn he’s been aware of rifts within the new commission. 

“I had heard that staff were concerned because of how some of the commissioners treat them, how overly involved some commissioners are,” Menos said, “to the point that one or two commissioners come by the office to provide direction [to staff] and insert themselves.”

That kind of micromanagement “highlights a misunderstanding of what the board does,” he said.

There’s a general lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities at CPOC, Councilmember Jones concurred, while praising the community outreach work commissioners have done and calling some of the issues “growing pains.”

“Everybody that is an activist isn’t necessarily as adept at being a board director,” Jones said. “Nobody gave them a book to read.” To that end, he is looking into ways local universities could provide technical assistance and help train new commissioners in board governance. 

Menos knows the job is difficult. Heading the PAC was “a real challenge,” he said.

“On any given day, there would be a conversation about ‘If PAC has access to X information then the liability for the city could be increased,’ [and] then the Law Department wouldn’t allow it.” 

The new board has investigatory powers vested that weren’t in Menos’s “wildest dreams,” he added, like a forthcoming study of PPD’s body-worn camera footage meant to highlight issues of procedural justice and coercion. That’s why, despite the early turbulence, he hopes to see CPOC thrive in the future. 

Jones felt similarly about the potential of the agency, saying that news of the resignations shouldn’t dissuade residents from supporting the new body. 

“Anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy,” Jones said. “If you take your time and you build it right, it’ll last a very long time and have a valuable function.”

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...