On May 28, America watched George Floyd take his last breath on the streets of Minneapolis under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Shortly thereafter, Americans began to protest and demonstrate in cities across the U.S., including here in Philadelphia. On that night, and for many days thereafter, people of all races, genders, ages, and backgrounds marched through the streets of Philadelphia, calling for change in our country. As thousands peacefully marched through the streets, businesses were also looted, police cars were burned, officers were injured, and protesters were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Ultimately, hundreds of protesters were arrested.
Now, I have been retained along with a team from the CNA Institute for Public Research to conduct an independent review of the Philadelphia Police Department’s response to the protests, and to provide recommendations for how these protests should be handled in the future.
Because we have been hired by the city, Philadelphians may have a question of whether our review will really be independent, transparent, and reliable. Because of that, I want to explain who I am, what we are doing, and what can be expected from our work.
I come to this investigation with nearly 20 years of living and practicing law in the Philadelphia area. But more importantly, I am a Black woman, the mother of Black sons, who cares about my community, who loves a God of love and justice for all, and who stands on the shoulders of family members who have fought for racial equality in their communities in the South. I bring not only professional expertise and life experience, but a commitment to doing my part to ensure that Philadelphia is the best city it can be.
In 15 years as an assistant district attorney and assistant U.S. attorney, I was an advocate for victims and for communities affected by crime. I worked alongside local, state, and federal law enforcement to conduct investigations that required me to review evidence and evaluate law enforcement’s interactions with victims, witnesses, and the accused. I developed an understanding and appreciation for how officers have to make “split-second” decisions in intense and sometimes dangerous situations, as well as an appreciation of the judgment and training that those decisions must be based upon. I have advised law enforcement on the legality and effectiveness of strategies before they go into the field. I worked with the agents and office to ensure that the tactics they employed had regard for the safety of the public as well as the targets of the investigations. It is with this understanding and experience that I will review the decisions by the Police Department for their appropriateness and effectiveness.
In addition, I have worked with victims and witnesses from all over Philadelphia and surrounding communities, as well as individuals who were charged with crimes. From many, I heard life stories of poverty, lack of education, lack of resources, and lack of equal opportunity. We talked about their encounters with law enforcement and the justice system that created in them a distrust of law enforcement and a negative view of the criminal justice system. I viewed my role as a prosecutor not only as one of power but of great responsibility. It was my responsibility to not just represent the government and ensure that the voices of the victims were heard, but to also make sure we adhered to the rights of defendants as required by the Constitution. It was my responsibility as a prosecutor to be fair, recognize the humanity of defendants as well as the victims, and ensure that all parties in the criminal justice system were treated fairly and with dignity.
My motivation for working on the “inside” of the criminal justice system either as a prosecutor or as a defense attorney has been to make a difference and to contribute to a safer and better community for my fellow citizens. This motivation remains close to my heart as I think about my sons navigating this world without my constant physical protection.
Ultimately, we will produce a report with recommendations based upon a review of the department’s current policies and procedures, and a review of evidence from the protests.
As we gather evidence and hear from law enforcement, we understand that this investigation cannot be effective without input from the community. If you participated in the protests or were in some way impacted by the protests, we want to hear from you: philadelphiaafteractionreview.mmwr.com.
Nicole Phillips is a partner at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP and is a member of the firm’s White Collar and Government Investigations practice group.