Powers of Philly’s proposed police oversight commission remain unknown

(Image via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia voters will decide whether to form a citizen police oversight commission in November amid months of national protests over police killings of Black men.

But much remains unknown about the proposed commission, including its budget, structure, and authority.

City Councilmember Curtis Jones, who authored the referendum legislation, said legislators and the Kenney administration will hash out the detailed specifics about the commission — tasked with investigating civilian complaints and alleged police misconduct — after the election.

“That’s way down the line,” Jones said.

The lack of details drew skepticism from the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, member of the interfaith community group POWER and pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E.

Tyler had concerns that the new oversight commissioner could be a “Trojan horse that looks like an independent board but either it doesn’t have teeth or it doesn’t have a budget.”

The police department has not been held accountable to the Black and brown communities for decades, Tylers said.  The formation of a new oversight commission had the opportunity to restore “local control” and accountability, he said.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby remains against the referendum, contending in an email that there were “enough levels of oversight built into the current system.”

“Our officers are highly trained and supervised,” McNesby said. “We believe the Constitution and updated police department directives and regulations offer appropriate protections for all Philadelphians.”

In the wake of civil unrest and protests in Philadelphia over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw issued a series of protocol changes, including prohibiting certain types of use-of-force tactics.

The new commission would replace the Police Advisory Commission, which was formed in 1993. The Floyd protests helped push Mayor Jim Kenney and legislators to back a new commission.

Jones said he was “spending a lot of time listening” to both local and national stakeholders leading up to the referendum vote.

If the referendum passes, Jones expected the city to form a committee and hold hearings to help determine the structure of the proposed commission.

Jones said it was critical for the proposed commission to have dedicated funding in order to function effectively, hire enough investigators to conduct investigations, and maintain political independence.

Subpoena power also was essential for the proposed commission, which would compel officers to participate in investigations, Jones added. (The current advisory commission lacks subpoena power and its requests for police Internal Affairs documents are typically denied.)

Yet state law governing police arbitration over disciplinary proceedings would limit the proposed commission’s ability to discipline officers found guilty of abuse. Changes to those protections would require support from state legislators.

Jones suggested the effectiveness of the city’s proposed police oversight commission could be determined by the outcome of the November election and whether Democrats flip the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Republican control both chambers of the state General Assembly. All 203 seats in the state House and half the Senate seats are on the ballot.

While city officials await the outcome of the referendum vote, some community members are preparing a list of demands for what a potential new commission should look like.

Throughout the summer, Tyler led a series of community town halls on police oversight for POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild). The meetings brought together residents; experts; police oversight board members from other cities, like Chicago; and some members of City Council and their staff.

A top takeaway from POWER’s summer meetings was creating a commission that has the power to hire and fire the police commissioner, similar to Oakland and San Francisco, Tyler said.

Tyler added that the city’s top cop also should report to the commission rather than the mayor.

Among other proposals that came out of the town halls regarding the structure and powers of the proposed new oversight commission included:

  • The power to conduct immediate investigations into officer-involved shootings and civilian complaints, including issuing subpoenas, and accessing police body camera footage and police disciplinary records.
  • Potentially electing commissioners from different sections of the city
  • Granting the commission power to craft and propose the police department’s budget
  • Linking the oversight commission’s annual funding to at least 1% of the police department’s budget

Jones said the pressures of the Black Lives Matter protests both in Philadelphia and across the country over police brutality were creating a new dialogue around the formation of a police oversight commission in the city.

In light of those pressures, Jones said “getting [the proposed commission] right was everything.”

“We will not create anything that has no meaning,” Jones said. “It will be meaningful, it will be well-thought out, and it will have teeth.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared