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At Police Advisory Commission, civilians review policy, but is that enough?

The Police Advisory Commission is looking to increase its funding, but questions remain about its mission.
Philadelphia Police with the 35th District at roll call. (Charles Mostoller)

In the aftermath of the Starbucks arrests of two black men, which many have said clearly was an incident of racial bias, one Philadelphia agency reviewing how the arrest happened will be the city's Police Advisory Commission (PAC), the civilian oversight board for the police department.

But the PAC doesn't investigate or punish individual cops, although some people think it ought to. Its role is to focus on the big picture of how the department operates, and how in general six officers can ended up arresting Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson for simply sitting inside a Starbucks.

“The best way to utilize our resources is on bigger, larger-scale issues," said Hans Menos, a trained social worker who has been the PAC's executive director since October. "Understanding those three aspects – the customs, policies and practices of the police department – and critiquing those, will get us further than individual cases."

PAC will be reviewing the Starbucks incident parallel to the Police Department's internal review and an investigation by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which reviews discrimination issues. PAC's past reports include recent recommendations for officers to start checking their publicly listed email accounts, and they hold monthly public meetings in neighborhoods around the city.  The commission is also tasked with trying to improve police-community relations and communicating law enforcement reforms to the public.

"I think everyone has a healthy skepticism of the PAC," Menos said. "'What’s our goal? And who is this new guy from New York, is he looking to embarrass us?' It is part of our job and it is something we all take seriously is to make clear that we just want to make things better. We want to assess and look at things, we want to have conversations around things."

But some members of the public want the PAC to do more when civilians have complaints about individual officers. While the police department has a large Internal Affairs department, some citizens simply do not trust the department to investigate itself. A Philadelphia Weekly/City&State Pa. investigation recently found that just 15 percent of civilian complaints against officers were sustained from 2013-17, with even fewer leading to actual punishments.

To help bulk up the PAC, City Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. proposed an amendment to the city charter granting it a stable annual funding stream of $500,000, to both stabilize the commission, which has 13 volunteer members, and help them hire two more investigators, in addition to the three they currently have. But Menos raised some eyebrows when he told Chris Norris he planned to put the new funding toward hiring "policy analysts," not investigators.

"I don’t like it," Councilman Jones said of that decision.“We put our money where our mouth is. ... It's important that there be a counter-balance to Internal Affairs. I need boots on the ground and intervening entities, so we don’t ever have situations like Baltimore.”

But Menos argued that momentum for policing reform in Philadelphia in the past has been aroun overall policy, citing the ACLU's Bailey lawsuit, which ended in a settlement on stop-and-frisk practices said to have curbed the practice in Philly by 50 percent, or the Department of Justice's review on the use of force in Philadelphia, which has also been followed by a significant drop in officer-involved shootings.

"I don’t want anyone to get caught up on the title," he said. "Nothing is prohibiting any policy analyst from taking on an individual case. If we find a case that is especially in need of real deep examination we can start there. If Officer Smith does something really odd or unfair or unjust, we do want to look at that, while trying to probe, is this systemic, is this a system-wide problem?"

But nonetheless, in reviewing for systemic problems, the PAC has in the past uncovered some unusual cases, such as the PAC's report (issued in July 2017, before Menos took over) on the death of Erica Koschman, who died of a reported suicide while her cop fiance was present. The PAC's recommendations said the police department should follow standard protocols in investigations of suicides where police are personally involved, and made clear that didn't happen in the case of Koschman's death, which family and friends have long claimed was sloppily handled and denied the finding of suicide. But the PAC didn't order any further actions or investigations into the case or Koschman's ex-fiance, still an active-duty Philly cop.  

"These are not things that PAC is sitting back saying 'I think this is what should have been done,' this was protocol and wasn't done," said Koschman's mother, Sharon Koschman. ""I thought it would have been reopened ... I think that they should have taker a sterner look, if nothing else at what wasn’t done in this case, and why wasn’t it done."

A look back at the history of Philadelphia's Police Advisory Commission

The Police Advisory Commission was created in 1994 by executive order under then-Mayor Ed Rendell and empowered to study departmental issues and review individual incidents of alleged police misconduct.

In January 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney issued a new executive order re-creating the Commission, abolishing the old order, and stating that the 13-member commission would review police policy, communicate policy revisions to affected communities, and to investigate individual complaints if they are related to a "policy, practice or custom."

The original executive order gave the commission powers to recommend actions such as the hiring, firing, promotion, demotion, punishment, or commendation or certain police officers. Kenney's new executive order did not list such powers, which are possessed by similar bodies in other cities, like New York, where the Civilian Complaint Review Board has a staff of nearly 100.

"Right now that’s not the PAC's responsibility," said Menos, who came to the PAC after a decade's work in New York City as a social worker. "No one seems to be hinting that they want to give the PAC those powers. Ultimately, that’s a legislative decision. If the mayor and City Council decide they want us to have those powers, I will talk to them and work with them on that."