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Independent police oversight could be coming to Philly, but funding is still a question

Philadelphia voters will be asked in November to approve the creation of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission. But the exact structure, powers, and budget for the new body remain to be seen.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw during a news conference regarding the police response to protesters on I-676 in June. Kenney and City Council are working to create a new police oversight body in response to calls for police reform.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw during a news conference regarding the police response to protesters on I-676 in June. Kenney and City Council are working to create a new police oversight body in response to calls for police reform.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia voters will be asked in November to approve the creation of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, an independent body that would have the power to review complaints against police and use of force by officers.

But the structure and powers of the new commission would be finalized only after the vote. The same goes for its budget, which would be key to its success.

“Any oversight entity, regardless of how it’s structured, if they are not appropriately resourced ... will not be effective because it won’t have the support it needs to do the work,” said Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

The new entity would replace the current Police Advisory Commission, which has been criticized for lacking enough power to provide effective oversight. The push to do so is one of several changes promised by Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council as protesters demanded action following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Philadelphia’s current Police Advisory Commission has seven employees and received $550,000 in the fiscal year that began last week, representing an 18% decrease from the previous year’s funding. The budget approved last week — which included the elimination of a planned $19 million increase for the Police Department — allocates an additional $400,000 for police oversight that would be held separately in the Managing Director’s Office while officials determine the structure for the new board.

The Police Advisory Commission budget for this fiscal year, is less than one-tenth of 1% the size of the $727 million Police Department budget — a small amount compared with other large U.S. cities, which allot several million dollars to police oversight annually.

Hans Menos, executive director of the commission, urged City Council to consider spending at least the equivalent of 1.5% of police funding on oversight. That would result in about $10 million annually for the new entity.

“This would ensure minimum staffing needs be met and would ensure independence,” he said at a Council hearing last month.

Kenney spokesperson Mike Dunn said the city cannot yet commit to a set level of funding.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council approves budget with coronavirus cuts, tax hikes, flat-funded Police Department

“We are only at the beginning of those conversations and recognize that civilian oversight will likely need additional funding,” he said.

Adding to the funding challenge: The city faces a fiscal crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Philadelphia had to fill a $749 million budget hole and anticipates having just $51 million in reserve funds when the current fiscal year ends next summer.

Menos pointed to New York and Chicago, noting that they each spend $16 million to $19 million on police oversight annually and have at least 180 employees working on oversight.

In Chicago, the police oversight board’s funding is set at 1% of the Police Department budget. New York City voters recently approved a measure to make police oversight staffing 0.65% of the number of officers in the city.

Menos said in an interview that the mandate for his office is clear, granting him the authority to access any relevant Internal Affairs documents. But he said his requests have been routinely denied.

“I think what we need to do is recognize the importance of not only establishing powers for the Police Advisory Commission,” he said, “but respecting the ones that currently exist and allowing for real enforcement of those powers.”

The commission has been criticized for focusing more on policy recommendations than on investigations into police misconduct, Menos said during last month’s hearing. He recommended a new body with several sections, including units for special investigations, misconduct investigations, community engagement, data management, and audits of internal police investigations.

Kenney administration officials have said the new body would have subpoena power, a measure that could help it access documents and information the current commission unsuccessfully sought.

The ballot question would authorize adding the commission to the city’s list of fully independent boards, such as the library trustees or the zoning commission, rather than placing it within a city department. The Police Advisory Commission currently reports to the Managing Director’s Office, which also oversees the Police Department.

Other details have yet to be worked out, but Dunn said officials are consulting with experts in other cities to develop a model that works.

“Ensuring public safety is paramount, and the events of the past several weeks have made clear that restoring the public’s confidence in the Police Department is — and will remain — a huge part of that,” Dunn said. “The mayor believes that enhancing oversight will go far to rebuilding trust.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s police union spent decades amassing power. Reforms could cut its clout

Pending approval from voters, the administration would negotiate additional details with City Council, which quickly approved the ballot measure last month along with other police changes. Only Councilmember Brian J. O’Neill voted against the oversight legislation.

Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who sponsored the legislation asking voters to approve a new commission, said at a Council hearing last month that the independence of the new agency would be key, so that its leaders can make decisions and “don’t have to fear for their jobs and the future of their commission.”

City Council legislation would still be needed to create the new commission if the ballot measure passed. That legislation would lay out its powers, the number of members, how much they would be paid, and other details.

No timeline is set for getting the commission up and running, Dunn said, “but we — along with our partners on City Council – intend to move expeditiously.”

While city officials commit to reform and seek to restore trust in police, however, they will have to juggle that with financial limitations due to COVID-19. Funding for oversight is now “more readily available” in many cities amid increased political will to reform police departments, Perez said. But oversight bodies are also being asked to do more with less.

“We haven’t really heard of any model of any existing oversight agencies being cut because of the pandemic,” Perez said. “More so, everybody’s just going to need to reevaluate how they’re providing services and how they can be more efficient.”

Staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.