After weeks of protest against police brutality and racism in policing, Philadelphia City Council unveiled its radical new idea: a Citizens Police Oversight Commission.
How radical? It was first tried in Philadelphia more than half a century ago.
The new oversight body would presumably be different than the existing Police Advisory Commission it would replace. Voters in November will need to approve a charter amendment establishing the commission, though specifics on its structure, powers, or funding won’t be fleshed out until after the vote.
The current commission, established in 1994, has a long legacy of being ineffectual at oversight, primarily due to its small budge and lack of authority -- making it easy for police commissioners, and the department as a whole, to sideline and ignore.
In recent years, the police response to the PAC’s recommendations can be summarized as ‘thanks but no thanks.’ Commissioner Ross rejected PAC’s recommendations and at times didn’t even bother to respond in writing to the substance of reports -- even though commissioners are required to. In addition, according to the PAC, information request are routinely denied by the police.
For the new oversight commission to be effective, Philadelphia needs to learn from its past.
In 1958, following uproar against police brutality, Mayor Richardson Dilworth appointed a five member Police Review Board to investigate -- the first of its kind in the nation. The Fraternal Order of the Police challenged the move, arguing that the oversight entity violated the charter. It was soon after rebranded as the Police Advisory Board. Despite the state’s Supreme Court approval of the oversight board, Mayor James Tate dissolved it -- an act then-Commissioner Frank Rizzo would call a “Christmas present.” The then-head of the board predicted: “We will come to regret this action in the years to come.”
Sixty-plus years later, that’s an understatement. What the recent protests made clear is that police practices and budgets are not in line with what the public wants -- or deserves -- out of policing. Private arbitrators and FOP bosses have more power over the police department than Philadelphia residents.
This time, if the newly proposed Citizens Police Oversight Commission must be appropriately funded and structured differently. That means full independence -- the current PAC reports to the Managing Director’s office, just like the police -- and with full access to information.
The Kenney administration said the Commission will have subpoena powers. But issuing a subpoena isn’t a magic wand. It requires filing legal actions that can be challenged and get stuck in the courts -- with Philadelphia taxpayers paying for both sides of the dispute.
For a commission to be effective, it can’t be at the mercy of police benevolence or chasing information with subpoena threats. The Commission should have access to all the information that police’s internal affairs investigators have, and police must accept recommendations unless it can articulate a specific reason not to.