Philadelphia Police Reform: The Path Forward

The feds have provided their recommendations. Now Philadelphia community leaders weigh in on how to meet those criteria.

Clockwise from left: Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey; Bishop Dwayne Royster of POWER; JoAnne Epps, dean of Temple Law; Mary Catherine Roper of ACLU; and Tanya Brown-Dickerson with attorney Brian Mildenberg.

Clockwise from left: Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey; Bishop Dwayne Royster of POWER; JoAnne Epps, dean of Temple Law; Mary Catherine Roper of ACLU; and Tanya Brown-Dickerson with attorney Brian Mildenberg.

We’ve heard what the experts think needs to change about the Philadelphia Police Department. And we’ve heard what the feds think, too. But what about the community?

After two reports — one from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the other from a Department of Justice Review of Philadelphia policing practices — the Philadelphia Police Department is embarking on a widespread reform effort that is expected to take 18 months to complete.  

That effort will be accountable to federal officials, but it will be overseen at the local level. JoAnne Epps, dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, has been picked by Mayor Nutter to lead an independent oversight board to monitor and guide the reform effort.

The board’s job, Epps said during an interview last week, will be to ensure “the resulting changes produce a better, more efficient, and more community-sensitized police department.”

Epps spoke cautiously, emphasizing that she was speaking for herself and not the board — which is still awaiting the appointment of its remaining members to start its work. She said the reform effort in Philadelphia has been aided by a national focus on policing in the wake of incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island.

“It seems to me that the attention of the nation, by virtue of incidents not in Philadelphia, the attention has been on policing, and on the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” she said. “I think it’s fair to say the nation has recognized the need to have those relationships be seen as fairly conducted by both sides.”

How to Get There From Here

How to achieve that in Philadelphia? Philly Mag spoke with individuals and organizations who have monitored and challenged the city’s Police Department, asking where they want to see the reform effort lead. Three main themes emerged:

• Oversight and Transparency: A Police Advisory Commission that provides nominal civilian oversight to the police department has long been in existence, but observers say its effectiveness has been limited.

“It just doesn’t have a track record of improving the police department,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU’s Philadelphia office. “We need more effective civilian oversight.”

Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the commission, says his agency’s efforts have been hampered by a tiny budget — around $280,000 for 2015 — and by a lack of cooperation from the department it supposedly monitors.

“In large part, our differences with the department have been around our own access to certain materials, particularly records surrounding shooting incidents,” Anderson said, adding that he believed the department was having a “change of heart on the matter.”

But observers say that the problem doesn’t just sit with the commission. They want to see the review of deadly shooting incidents taken out of the hands of the district attorney’s office and given to an independent agency.

“We definitely need a special prosecutor that operates outside the purview of the D.A.’s office and the police department … to make sure all the facts are laid out and are not hidden,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, the executive director of POWER, the activist group that had led “Black Lives Matter” marches in Philly in recent months.

“It’s been proven the police can’t investigate the police,” added the Rev. Greg Holston, another POWER activist. “And the relationship between the district attorney and the police is so close … you need somebody outside those relationships to shine a light on serious incidents.”

 • “Guardian mindset”: The president’s task force — co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey — emphasized the need to establish a “guardian mindset” among officers, as opposed to an “us versus them” attitude that can sometimes prevail. It’s a recommendation echoed by local officials.

“I think there would be some skepticism in the public about” whether the guardian mindset prevails in Philly, Anderson said.

Roper was even more skeptical.

“There are consistent complaints in regard to the attitude,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect, communicating what’s going on. Anybody who has been arrested can tell you they ask where they’re going, what’s going on. No questions are answered.”

It’s a critique that Ramsey seems to have acknowledged has merit.

“For years, we’ve heard we’re fighting crime, there’s a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on this and a war on that. We’re not at war with the communities that we serve,” he said in March. “We have a job to do, we certainly have to arrest people who are committing crimes, but we also have a larger responsibility, and that’s to protect people, to protect the rights of individuals, and that’s the ‘guardian’ mindset. That’s a very important part of this report.”

• Racial sensitivity: The topic can sometimes seem to frustrate Ramsey. When asked if police disproportionately target African-Americans for law enforcement activities, Ramsey often points out that the vast majority of Philadelphia homicides take place in the city’s black community.

“Black lives, hell, I’ve been black longer than most of the folks in the room here,” he said following the melee that broke out at Lawncrest Recreational Center last month. “You know, it’s not like I just came from Mars or something.”

The department’s critics say such rhetoric misses the point.

“A good person who is commissioner is still dealing with an institution that’s been racist, an institution that’s been oppressive,” said Holston, pointing to a long history of tension between the city’s police and its black residents — one that pre-dates Ramsey’s tenure here.

An analysis earlier this year by the ACLU suggested that more than a third of all “stop and frisk” incidents done by Philly police are done without reasonable cause — the proportion of unreasonable stops is higher for black and Latino residents. “Something institutionally is wrong when the numbers are that high,” Holston said.

There are signs that Ramsey has tried to instill higher levels of racial sensitivity into the department. Two buses of police recruits went to the National Holocaust Museum last week for a lesson in what happens when an ethnic group is deprived of its civil rights. “Once rights are taken away from any particular group of people, how quickly it can turn into the worst nightmare, which obviously occurred during the Holocaust,” he said.

Critics, however, want more.

“I think going to the National Holocaust Museum is good,” Royster said, “but police are shooting African-American men at an alarming rate.” 

Can It Happen?

Roper can sound skeptical when discussing the prospects for reform. “In my view, Commissioner Ramsey believes everything in this report,” she said, referring to the president’s task force. “But culture dictates what goes on on the streets. And the policies aren’t changing the culture.”

What needs changed, Roper said, is not just policies but incentives. Officers rewarded and promoted for the number of arrests made and tickets written won’t care as much about goals that aren’t measured and won’t help them advance.

“There are no such metrics,” she said. “They are professionals, they want to do a good job, and what they’re being measured on is not what’s in this report.”

Holston, meanwhile, suggests the process of reform will take longer than the 18-month term of Department of Justice oversight. “It’s going to have to last longer than one commissioner to make it happen,” he said.

Brian Mildenberg is a Philadelphia attorney who is representing Tanya Brown-Dickerson, the mother of Brandon Tate-Brown, who was shot by police last December. He suggested that the polarized debate — which often pits reformers against police supporters — should find a middle ground.

“We should never lose sight of the sacrifices made by our police officers. We should thank them and be ready to support and help them in their times of need,” he said. “Supporting and thanking our officers, however, is not inconsistent with demanding that the Police Department, as an institution, make reforms and become more accurate and transparent in communicating with the public.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.