The group empowered with assessing the appropriateness of shootings and other uses of force by Philadelphia Police has not met in nearly a year — violating a department directive and raising concerns by the Police Advisory Commission, which wrote to Commissioner Danielle Outlaw in September urging an immediate response.
The commission, which serves as the Police Department’s civilian oversight board, urged that the Use of Force Review Board (UFRB) resume meeting on a regular schedule. At the same time, it raised alarms that the board may be in danger of being phased out.
“Currently the convening of this board is the only opportunity for civilian input into the discharge of firearms, the most serious action a police officer can take. Eliminating the UFRB would also eliminate civilian input and transparency into these cases,” Hans Menos, then the executive director of the advisory commission, wrote in September.
The most recent scheduled hearing, Dec. 3, 2019, was canceled and never rescheduled, Menos said, noting that as many as 25 shootings are awaiting review. And a public database of UFRB outcomes has not been updated in years, leaving cases dating back to 2016 listed as “pending.”
He also lamented that the advisory commission received only a few days — or even a few hours — of notice before hearings, leaving them unable to prepare. “This pattern continued through 2019 where the PAC was delivered a packet of 11 cases on 11/27/19 (the day before Thanksgiving) which were set to be reviewed at UFRB on Dec. 3, 2019,” he wrote.
In a response, dated Nov. 10, Outlaw’s legal adviser, Francis Healy, said the department agreed that regular hearings were necessary. He said the pandemic was partly to blame for the delay. He also cited the decline in police shootings in Philadelphia in recent years, explaining that the department was waiting until “there was a sufficient number of shooting cases to warrant convening a hearing.”
He did not specify how many police shootings would be necessary to warrant a hearing, but said the department would aim to meet at least quarterly, as its directive requires.
The list of cases still pending review, according to the city’s public-facing database, include the fatal shooting of Jeffrey Dennis, 36, by undercover Police Officer Richard Nicoletti in 2018. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office already ruled out criminal charges in that case, but Dennis’ family is suing the city and Nicoletti, who previously shot another man in 2012 under similar circumstances. Also listed as pending is a 2018 shooting by then-Officer Jason Reid, who previously shot five people while on duty and is facing criminal charges in connection with assaulting a handcuffed suspect. Other high-profile cases, including the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in October and the shootout leading up to the arrest of Maurice Hill in the city’s Tioga section last year, are not listed at all.
But the UFRB is just a small component of a police-oversight apparatus that critics say is in dire need of reform. Voters in November supported a ballot initiative to establish a new, more powerful police-oversight body to replace the Police Advisory Commission, though details remain scarce. Menos, who had railed against the limitations of the commission, stepped down from his post in October.
The department’s response to Menos’ UFRB recommendations included at least one new concession. Going forward, it will include shootings of dogs in its officer-involved shooting database — a demand previous department leadership had rejected. Healy also said the department would consider a recommendation to expand the role of civilian oversight on the board.
Previously, acting Commissioner Christine Coulter had suggested that the Use of Force Review Board might be dissolved entirely, absorbed into other department review boards. Healy’s response suggested the UFRB will remain intact for now. He wrote, “We respect and value the process.”
Menos’ successor, Anthony Erace, said the department’s response was cause for optimism.
“They probably said yes to more recommendations in one letter than they’ve ever said to us,” he said. Now, it’s a matter of sticking to that plan — and not allowing the hearings to once again fall by the wayside. “The reality,” he added, “is a year is too long.”