Donna Reed Miller stares me down from across the vast City Council chambers, daring me to speak. Heart pounding, I lean toward the microphone provided for testimony. “I’m a reporter for Philadelphia Weekly,” I begin. Miller, who heads Council’s Public Safety Committee, cracks a smile.
I was among 20 people who attended a Council hearing in June to defend our applications to the Police Advisory Commission, a body created by the city to conduct investigations on citizen complaints about Philadelphia police and make recommendations for action and reforms. If the PAC’s mission is to “improve the relationship between the police department and the community,” who could be better at keeping citizens informed on police activities than a reporter with free newspaper space at his disposal every week?
Fifty people applied for the commission, which consisted of filling out a questionnaire, attaching a resume, gathering letters of recommendation and finally, the optional testimony at City Hall.
Miller might have found my presence amusing, but I had a serious point to make. My contention was that the public does not have a good understanding of the PAC, if even aware of its existence at all. Indeed, most people who PW spoke with had never heard of the commission. A few bystanders said they were familiar with the body but when pressed were unable to articulate its function:
“It’s getting so you can’t trust the police any more than the criminals,” said a woman waiting for the bus on Master Street.
“I’m a law-abiding man, so I respect the police,” a man said from his stoop on 29th Street. “If the police don’t respect the law, no one catches them here on earth, but they’ll answer to a higher power.”
Truth be told, the PAC hasn’t exactly been putting its name out there. The commission was created by then-Mayor Ed Rendell in 1993, but hasn’t produced an annual report since 2004 and hasn’t released an opinion about anything since May 2009. In total, the group has published 19 opinions on police complaints in its 17 years of existence. With major changes coming to the police force, an active, visible PAC is needed now more than ever.
Weighty stuff is going down at the Roundhouse these days. Barely a week goes by that another officer or three don’t disgrace themselves and their badges by stealing cash, heroin, raping 12-year-olds, shooting unarmed civilians, shooting themselves and blaming a black guy or any number of other offenses. In response, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is producing a yet-to-be unveiled plan to unmask other rogue officers.
But shouldn’t the PAC have a role, too? Residents need to know that there is appropriate civilian oversight to both ensure proper penalties and to reassure the city that (hopefully) the incidents are isolated and not part of a larger, systemic problem with the force.
Then there’s the reorganization of the Police Department, which is being forced to deal with a $13.7 million cut in next year’s budget, no overtime and the cancellation of two new police classes. That means about 200 fewer cops on the street, with no one to replace officers who retire—or get fired.
“If there’s less police officers out there, you have less of a force to combat the crime. Of course that’s a concern,” says Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Roosevelt Poplar. “How long can you drive a car without putting gas back there? You have to refill the tank eventually.”
But Ramsey refuses to complain about the reduced numbers. “You can sit around and cry about getting cut,” the commissioner says. “But we choose to continue to be effective.”
To help reduce overtime, Ramsey has transferred about 60 officers back to the streets from specialized areas of the force like the Neighborhood Services Unit, which fields complaints from Council members, and the Background Unit, which checks out new hires and won’t have much work anyway since the incoming classes have been canceled. “It gives me more boots on the ground during the times and places I need the most,” he says.
As optimistic as Ramsey is, the reality is the police are making due with less. Sounds like the perfect time for the PAC to weigh in.
“We’re obviously watching as it occurs but we haven’t released anything or considered anything related to that,” says Kelvyn Anderson, PAC’s deputy director since 2000. He says the commission generally doesn’t meet over the summer and will reconvene with the new members in September. “Hopefully with a full complement of commissioners we’ll be able to be a lot more visible,” he adds.
Anderson says the PAC’s website doesn’t tell the whole story. “We have meetings every month. We direct people to other agencies if necessary.” The commission fielded 168 complaints last year and 240 in 2008, but almost none of them reached a hearing.
“We’ve never had the manpower; even with a full commission we could never take every complaint to a full hearing,” Anderson says.
Hopefully the new members can inject some life into the advisory body. The names Mayor Nutter is likely to announce this week, picked from the list recommended by Council, are in addition to nine members he already chose back in April, which makes a total of 15 commissioners plus four alternates.
Despite the city’s good intentions, I question how seriously it takes this citizen committee.