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Philadelphia’s Police Oversight Agency to Start Work Soon

The new commission, which was first proposed two years ago in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, will have subpoena power, access to crime scenes and records and will conduct a variety of investigations.

(TNS) — Nearly two years after it was first proposed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and almost a year since Philadelphia’s City Council approved legislation to create a new police oversight agency, the organization is finally poised to move past the planning phase and into reality.

Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr.’s office last week proposed nine nominees to serve as the group’s commissioners — a mix of activists, organizers and lawyers who will effectively act as the governing board for the Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC).

That nomination process itself took several months — one potential commissioner was replaced after concerns about his candidacy were raised at a virtual town hall in early February — and is not yet complete. Council is expected to hold its own public vetting session in the coming weeks before voting on the nominees.

In the meantime, the existing oversight group, the Police Advisory Commission, has tripled its staff, from five people to 15, in anticipation of moving those staffers into roles with the new agency. It is designed to have more funding and power than its predecessor, with responsibilities to include investigations into officer misconduct, audits and policy recommendations, and reviewing citizen complaints against police.

Funding, however, is also not yet set. The city is heading into budget season, with officials from nearly every agency jockeying to secure money for the next fiscal year. Anthony Erace, executive director of the current advisory commission, said the CPOC would likely request around $2.7 million — a significant jump from this year, in which Erace said oversight spending was a bit under $1 million, and nearly five times what had been spent on the old advisory commission.

Still, Erace said he’s thrilled that the long process of actually launching the CPOC — one he acknowledged was slower than he and others would’ve liked — was nearing an end. He believes the beefed-up agency, once it’s up and running, has a chance to help “define the profession” of police oversight nationally.

Samantha Williams, Jones’ director of policy and a key figure in the group’s planning, put it simply: “I hope it is every bit as impactful as we dreamed it would be.”

The new organization was proposed in the spring of 2020 after Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. As advocates across the country, including in Philadelphia, called for a wide scope of police reforms, Mayor Jim Kenney pledged to replace the Police Advisory Commission — often viewed as underfunded, understaffed and relatively toothless — with a more robustly funded form of citizen oversight.

Reform advocates in Philadelphia and elsewhere have long called for the use of more outside supervision of police, especially when it comes to investigating allegations of officer misconduct or determining discipline.

City voters that fall approved a ballot question authorizing the formation of a new group. And last May, Council voted 16-1 to approve Jones’ legislation creating it.

Among the changes to the current setup: The CPOC will have subpoena power and access to crime scenes and records, and it will be tasked with conducting a variety of investigations — including into allegations of police misconduct, probing police shootings or other uses of force, and conducting what Erace said would be NTSB-style reviews of significant incidents.

Still, acting on that vision has taken time, and Erace said full staffing — including potentially hiring dozens of investigators — could take several years.

“Slow and deliberate is better than fast and emotional,” he said.

One of the key early tasks has been nominating people to serve on the nine-member board of commissioners. And that process has not been without some controversy.

At a virtual town hall in February, an attendee voiced concerns about nominee Allan Wong, a retired pharmaceutical scientist, including by saying he’d shared a racist post on WeChat, a social media app.

Wong defended himself in the meeting, and again in an interview, saying he’d only shared the post, which initially came from someone else’s account, to debunk it as inaccurate. But after the meeting, his candidacy to become a commissioner was revoked.

Wong said he has not been given an explanation why, and he accused the selection panel of acting politically and without transparency.

Williams, of Jones’ office, said the panel reviewed all of Wong’s qualifications and application and decided to move forward instead with another nominee, Afroza Hossain, an East Germantown resident and employee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

Other nominees include former city Judge Benjamin Lerner, community organizer John Solomon, and Rosaura Torres Thomas, who wrote a book about surviving domestic abuse during past relationships with police officers.

Hassan Bennett, who in 2019 represented himself in a murder retrial and won, said his experience — fighting against a wrongful conviction that he said was the result of police misconduct — gives him a unique perspective to bring to the board. And if confirmed, he believes he and his fellow panelists, who come from a mix of neighborhoods with a diverse set of experiences, will help connect the organization with residents in different parts of the city.

“I just wanted to give the community a voice at the table,” he said.

Williams said City Council was expected to host a hearing — she was hoping next month — to vet the nominees before a Council vote. Once the board is seated, Erace said, the CPOC “will officially exist.”

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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