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Philly moves toward new police oversight as a report said the current system is in ‘dire need’ of overhaul

The new oversight commission would have more power than the body it is replacing, including the authority to issue subpoenas.

Philadelphia police headquarters.
Philadelphia police headquarters.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia will soon have a new police oversight body after City Council approved legislation Thursday to create a system that would replace an existing commission long criticized for lacking the power or funding to provide effective oversight.

Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who sponsored the legislation, called it an opportunity to create meaningful citizen oversight of the Philadelphia Police Department. But more work is needed to ensure success, he said.

”Even with the passage of this ordinance, we still have to fuel that ship through properly giving it a budget,” Jones said. “We have to find its captain, we have to find its crew so that it can sail beyond our actions here today.”

Lawmakers took steps to form the new commission last year, amid protests over police brutality and systemic racism after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Philadelphia voters approved a ballot question in November to authorize its formation.

Council voted 16-1 to approve Jones’ bill Thursday, with Republican Councilmember Brian J. O’Neill voting against it. Mayor Jim Kenney has expressed support for the new oversight body and is expected to sign it into law.

Kenney’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes $1.9 million to launch the commission. That would represent a significant increase over the $550,000 allocated to the Police Advisory Commission during the current fiscal year, but still less than in other large cities. New York, by comparison, spends $19 million annually on its police oversight body. Chicago spends $13 million.

The commission will have an executive director, chief counsel, and other staff, as well as nine members chosen by a selection committee and confirmed by City Council. The body will have subpoena power and access to crime scenes and records, which the Police Advisory Committee lacked. The body will review all complaints against police made by citizens, employees of the Police Department, and other city workers. It can also investigate officer conduct, such as in instances involving the use of force or discharging a firearm, and can recommend criminal charges or discipline. And it can conduct audits and make policy recommendations.

The Council vote came just a week after the Police Advisory Commission released a 258-page report that found the department’s internal disciplinary process is in “dire need of a transformative overhaul.” The report, a collaboration between the advisory commission, the Police Department, and experts from the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and the University of California, Irvine, was built on a review of 3,500 complaints that civilians filed with Internal Affairs between 2015 and 2020.

What emerged were findings both troubling and yet unsurprising to anyone familiar with the corruption and misconduct scandals that have long emanated from the department: Less than 1% of investigations resulted in officers facing discipline that was stronger than a reprimand, while 86% of complaints didn’t advance beyond a preliminary investigation.

A 2017 executive order called for Internal Affairs investigations to be finished within 90 days, but the review found those investigations typically take twice as long. On average, the department took 463 days to share investigative results with civilians who filed complaints — in some instances up to 637 days.

The report, which was first reported by WHYY, also pulled the curtain back on often-secretive disciplinary practices, revealing widespread inconsistencies and practices that all but ensure bad cops will elude accountability. (A second report, focused on other aspects of the disciplinary process, is expected to be released during the summer.)

“I honestly think that the Police Department has known for a long time that the process was broken and needed reform. I’ve never met anybody who said, ‘No, it’s great. It works fine,’” said Anthony Erace, the advisory commission’s executive director. “But there’s this feeling in government that’s sort of Kafkaesque. Everyone knows what’s wrong but doesn’t know how to fix it.”

Some members of the Police Board of Inquiry, who hear investigative evidence and recommend discipline, told reviewers that Internal Affairs files are sometimes missing information, contain interviews that were clearly not thorough, or offer findings influenced by an investigator’s supervisor.

But the review also found that the PBI board — made up of police officers of various ranks -— often dismisses or downgrades charges because it requires an inappropriately high burden of proof, and follows rules “that no one knows the origin of.”

The report offers more than two dozen recommendations, including adding civilians to the PBI board, allowing complainants and witnesses to testify remotely, and making penalties for misconduct clearer and more uniform.

“The way it worked,” Erace said, “if I’m a bad person who has a badge, I know the chances of something happening to me are slim to none, so I don’t really need to govern myself. If I’m a good person, and I have to work with cops who never receive consequences, what’s the incentive for me to intervene?”

While the report makes a thorough case for reforms, its authors were mindful of the shadow cast by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. There are multiple references to the importance of getting the police union to agree to new accountability measures during its ongoing contract negotiations with the city.

Erace said the FOP should be in favor of changes that the Police Department and the advisory commission both see as making the discipline process more consistent and transparent.

“There’s nothing in these recommendations that puts any officer at a disadvantage,” Erace said.

John McNesby, the FOP’s president, declined to comment.