For two decades, the Police Advisory Commission has battled abuse by Philadelphia officers but felt powerless to do its job.

Despite being the official civilian oversight agency for police misconduct, it had no regular access to the department's own investigations of shootings - and little recourse.

That's changed.

Under the Police Department's new rules on shootings by officers, the PAC's director will have equal standing with four deputy commissioners in deciding whether or not police actions are justified.

"It's a dramatic change," said commission director Kelvyn Anderson of the regulations that were made public last week and took effect last month. "We've been complaining all these years. Now we have access."

The city's police union is not on board with the changes, which affect a broad range of departmental procedures. It has asked the state labor board to overturn the new regulations, and a hearing is set for January.

Most of the changes emerged after a March U.S. Department of Justice report that was critical of the way Philadelphia police use lethal force.

Departing Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey had requested the inquiry after police-involved shootings spiked in 2012. That year, 58 people were shot by police, and Ramsey wanted an outside agency to identify Philadelphia's deficiencies.

The changes include:

Naming police officers who shoot civilians within three days of the incident.

Allowing officers to review videos taken by their body cameras before they tell investigators why they fired their weapons.

Limiting the number of times an officer can fire a Taser at a suspect.

Notifying the PAC immediately after every officer-involved shootings.

Next month, Anderson is scheduled to attend his first Use of Force Review Board meeting, where he will sit with the deputy police commissioners to examine confidential misconduct investigations.

Since it was established in 1994 by then-Mayor Ed Rendell, the commission has investigated hundreds of citizens' complaints against police, but it struggled with limited funds and access to information from police. Intermittently it submitted reports to police commissioners who were free to ignore them.

In March, the Justice Department's report listed 48 concerns about Philadelphia policing, saying "the most notable being the need for the department to fully cooperate with the Police Advisory Commission."

It called for police to provide the commission "all pertinent documentation" on police shootings and recommended that a citizen serve on the police board that reviews cases of alleged police wrongdoing.

"Now we're on the front lines," said Anderson, 56, a former Delaware County newspaper reporter who has been a staff member on the commission since 2000. "We've got to put a little meat on the bones, but it's a good start."

Some of the changes were recommended by Mayor Nutter's volunteer police oversight task force, appointed at the same time the Justice Department released its report. The mayoral task force recommended tighter language in the police rules, such as requiring that officers should use only the minimal force necessary to overcome an "immediate threat."

Previous rules instructed officers only to use force that "would reduce a threat."

Union officials say officers now may be grilled in lawsuits over the precise moment that a confrontation with a suspect became an "immediate threat," allowing them to use their weapons.

The Police Department's new rules incorporate sections of the federal report verbatim.

The police union's president, John McNesby, said Ramsey was catering to federal authorities.

"He's just taking everything from the Obama plan," McNesby said, predicting the changes would be overturned.

When drafts of the changes were circulated in June, the union complained to the state labor board.

A week later, sparks flew when Ramsey released the names of two rookie officers involved in the December fatal shooting of 26-year-old Brandon Tate-Brown at a car stop in Mayfair.

On July 1, Ramsey announced that in any future cases of officer-involved shootings, the department would release names of the involved officers within 72 hours of the shooting.

The final rules say the department will consider "public safety concerns" in deciding if exceptions need to be made.

Departments in California and Texas regularly release the names of officers involved in shootings. The current issue of Police Chief magazine, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, recommends waiting 48 hours before identifying police shooters. That would give their families time to prepare for the publicity.

The provision that allows officers to review body-camera videos after they discharged their gun and Tasers also mirrors emerging police procedures nationally. The department is finishing its pilot program to test body-worn video devices, Anderson said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said police should allow both the officers and the public to view the videos.

"If the police officer sees it before talking with investigators, the public should see it," he said. "There has to be some symmetry. . . . I think more information is better. It is what it is."

Civil rights lawyers warn that if officers view the videos before they are questioned by department investigators, they can tailor their statement to fit the images.

But they say other changes are long overdue.

Since 2010, police have fired department-issued Tasers more than 2,600 times.

Now, the rules say that an officer should discharge the electronic weapon no more than three times at any suspect, noting that repeated shocks can cause death.

McNesby said his group was willing to make changes but they must be negotiated as dictated by the contact with the city.

"You just don't throw the kitchen sink at us," he said.

Last week, at a National Constitution Center forum, Ramsey said he had faced "big challenges by our union," especially when he announced that he was releasing the names of officers involved in shooting citizens.

He said the labor contract has to be respected but the union doesn't run the department.

"When they get into operational areas," he said, "that's too far."

mfazlollah@phillynews.com215-854-5831