How to Better Police the Philadelphia Police

Committee of Seventy's Ellen Kaplan on the urgent need for strong, well-funded and permanent civilian oversight of Philly's finest.


While it’s difficult to think about police issues beyond what’s going on in Ferguson this week, Philadelphia is in the thick of a police problem of its own.

ellen-kaplan 400And in the aftermath of the latest scandal — in which a half-dozen members of the notorious narcotics squad were charged with various corruption offenses — there have been increasing calls for action: Ellen Kaplan, interim president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, last month called for the creation of a permanent civilian oversight board for the Philadelphia Police Department. (Specifically, the committee endorsed a charter amendment proposed by Councilman Curtis Jones.) This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer echoed that call on its editorial page.

“Right now, I think that the public is pretty distrustful of the police force when they hear these kind of allegations,” Kaplan said this week. “And it’s really not fair. Most officers do not behave in the way that it’s alleged that these folks on the narcotics squad behaved. It really casts a dark cloud over the entire police department.”

Kaplan talked to Philly Mag about the proposal.

Committee of Seventy is calling for a civilian oversight board for police. Why would a board be better than other types of accountability that are currently in place?

Right now, the city has a Police Advisory Commission. I met with the executive director, Kelvin Anderson, the other day and he told me that aside from him, there are two other employees in the office. They have a budget of just under $283,000. And they’re supposed to be overseeing a police force of 6,600 officers. When you look at some of the other police boards, similar oversight organizations in other cities, they’re much more robust.

Philadelphia needs to have a permanent, well-resourced police advisory commission. Right now, the commission is pretty much paralyzed by the lack of staff and the lack of resources. And making it permanent would send a strong message, we think, to Philadelphians. You need to have a strong outside group that’s investigating complaints against police officers and can make recommendations for disciplinary action.

You talked about other cities having more robust oversight. That does seem like a basic part of municipal government. What has been the obstacle to having that kind of oversight before now?

Well, the obstacle is usually a police union that doesn’t want it. They’re loathe to have civilian oversight, just in the same way that sometimes we find with the Committee of Seventy, that government doesn’t like government watchdogs.

Again, I’m just looking at the Committee of Seventy’s example. We speak out when others don’t. You’re not going to hear Internal Affairs talking about their investigations, whereas outside groups can be more transparent about what they do. I would say the same thing is true about the police advisory commission. They’re going to have public hearings. Again, it’s not that the current group doesn’t have some of the power to do that now. But, it’s so poorly resourced that they can’t get anything done.

Well, let’s talk about getting stuff done. Commissioner Ramsey has often fired a number of officers accused of wrongdoing. We also know that arbitration ends up often restoring officers to their jobs, and often with back pay. Would an oversight board be able to circumvent these kinds of problems, or would it be similarly vulnerable to that issue?

The arbitration process is not something that the oversight board would have authority over. The police department disciplinary measures are imposed by the police department. They’re not imposed by the advisory commission. But if you have a strong commission with public hearings, and people feel that when they bring complaints to them, that the commission has the ability, really, to investigate those quickly and in a robust way, then people start feeding complaints to the commission.

What is the process that will put this board into place? How is this going to become reality?

Well, Curtis Jones introduced the amendment. It’s in front of committee, and that’s where it’s been sitting. And the Committee of Seventy was going to be urging Councilman Jones as soon as they come back into session in September to hold a hearing, and to get the process started. Because in order to have the permanent police advisory commission, it needs to go on the ballot, because it’s a charter amendment, so it’s got to be approved by city voters. The sooner the better.

How has the city been harmed by this bad policing?

Well, I think there’s harm when citizens read that there’s a narcotics squad that’s in cahoots with the people that they’re supposed to be policing. It really damages the integrity of the police force.

It really has an effect on investigations that are still being undertaken. It has an effect on investigations that have been completed and have led to criminal charges. There are all kind of ramifications when you have these kind of charges. You’ve got to have a police force of the highest ethical caliber. It’s just part of what citizens need.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.