Philly Council offers first draft on its proposed police oversight commission

(Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — City lawmakers have revealed the first outline of what the city’s new citizens police oversight commission could look like.

On Thursday members of City Council took up a proposed bill detailing the powers and structure of the new police oversight commission, which included granting the commission subpoena power to compel police officers accused of wrongdoing to testify — a significant demand from police reform advocates.

The proposal was sent to committee for a hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Councilman Curtis Jones, the main sponsor of the bill, said during Thursday’s council session that the legislation would serve as a “beginning discussion about the final leg of the race toward the establishment of this commission.”

Mike Neilon, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 (FOP), declined comment.

The proposal calls for a nine-member commission made up of Philadelphia residents. City Council would confirm the nominees, proposed by a selection committee, within 120 days after the passage of the proposed legislation.

Under the proposal, commissioners would serve four-year terms. Members would be prevented from serving more than two consecutive terms.

Powers of Philly’s proposed police oversight commission remain unknown

The commission would be required to meet bimonthly, and to hold at least one public hearing a year on police department policies and procedures, and another on the department’s budget. The commission would provide an annual report of its work.

Jones said the goals of the new commission are to restore public confidence in the oversight of police misconduct and police-community relations, and reduce large city payouts stemming from lawsuits over police abuse.

Officers and city employees who refuse to cooperate with the commission’s investigations could be subject to a $1,000 fine per violation and face discharge.

Missing from the proposal was a budget for the budding commission and how much commissioners will be paid. Police reform advocates have said consistent and adequate funding for the commission would determine whether the commission can effectively investigate complaints.

In a follow-up telephone interview, Jones said legislators will hammer out a budget for the commission after the proposal is approved. Jones did not reject tapping into the $727 million budget of the Philadelphia Police Department, the most expensive department in the city, to pay for the commission.

“Many stakeholders have supported that funding source,” Jones said when asked about taking funding from the police budget for the commission. “I really am agnostic in the sense that I don’t care where [the funding] comes from as long as it comes.”

Philadelphia voters approved the creation of a new police oversight commission through a ballot question in November. The new commission would replace the Police Advisory Commission, which was formed in 1993 and lacks subpoena power.

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The police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minnesota police officer in 2020 prompted Mayor Jim Kenney and legislators to back the creation of a new police oversight commission.

Jones said the proposal included input from the Kenney administration, FOP and community groups like POWER.

As the city moves toward restructuring independent oversight of the Police Department with new powers, the commission will suffer from the same impediment as the board it will replace when it comes to disciplining officers.

State law governing police arbitration over disciplinary proceedings limits the ability of the police commissioner to discipline officers. Changes to Act 111 would require support from state legislators.

Powers and duties of the proposed commission

The proposed legislation calls for the commission to receive, register and investigate all citizen complaints made against members of the department, and recommend charges and discipline.

The commissioners would review and investigate all use-of-force incidents, including when officers use their Tasers and discharge their firearms.

In addition to having subpoena power to force officers to participate in investigations under the proposal, the commission would have the power to review and reopen police Internal Affairs investigations alleging police misconduct in some instances.

The proposal not only would grant the commission access to all Police Department files, records and police personnel files that the department’s Internal Affairs has, but also would direct access to the department’s databases that store investigative information. (The investigations of the Police Advisory Commission were regularly stymied due to a lack of timely cooperation by the Police Department.)

The commission also would jointly work with Police Department officials in determining charges against an officer accused of wrongdoing and prosecuting complaints before the Police Board of Inquiry.

The commission would publicly release all of its investigations, audits and surveys, with some exceptions, according to the proposal. The commission would maintain a database of complaints, investigations and disciplinary histories for each accused officer.

The commission would post on its website the video of any police incident that is subject to its investigation within 48 hours of the incident occurring, with some exceptions.

The proposal would require police brass to notify the commission of its actions against an accused officer, such as if it intends to withdraw charges.

The proposal would prevent the police commissioner from disciplining an officer over misconduct until the commission completes its own investigations and submits its recommendations.

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