What Philly's police commission needs to do to become relevant

PSHOOT
Police SWAT team members arrive at the scene after a man was wounded by gunfire.

When Mayor Kenney named a new executive director for the city’s Police Advisory Commission last week, it hardly made a ripple — which is appropriate, because the commission itself is nearly invisible.

That needs to change under the leadership of New Yorker Hans Menos. As executive director,  Menos will be working with 13 commissioners, many of whom are also new to the job, though they do represent a broad cross-section of Philadelphians.  The list includes community activists, advocates for the poor and disabled, and even a former police inspector.

What this city needs is to see Menos and the commission make some ripples. Speak up. Get attention paid to important issues on policing while acting as an advocate for those who believe they have been unfairly harmed by police actions.

The commission handles citizen complaints, but it’s not exactly a heavy caseload.  In all of 2016, it reviewed only 36 cases.

Created by Mayor Ed Rendell in 1994, the commission is supposed to act as an independent check on law enforcement actions. It sounds noble – and the idea is worthwhile – but the commission has never had much public impact, partly due to leadership and financial issues.

It is also partly due to the sheer size of its mission.  The Police Department is the largest agency by far in city government, with 6,100 officers and an annual budget exceeding $1 billion, when you include benefits. The PAC has had a budget in the $250,000 to $300,000 range, and six employees.

The mayor has promised to up the budget and hire more help after Menos takes charge.  He should. As for the commission, it should focus less on individual cases and more on police practices.

One area clearly needing attention is the disciplinary system. Someone must explain why a police officer who has shot three people while on duty – one of them fatally – is still on the job, even though he was fired in 2015 after the third shooting incident.

Staff writer Mensah M. Dean in a recent article chronicled the case of Officer Cyrus Mann, who was ordered reinstated last year by an arbitrator.

The sad fact is that police discipline in Philadelphia is governed by the department’s contract with the Fraternal Order of Police — and the commission lacks the power to overturn it.

But, the PAC does have the power – and may soon have the manpower – to examine every shooting by police and publicize the results.  (It has subpoena power, so it can access police records.)

The commission also could assess how well the department is doing in implementing recommendations made by the U.S. Justice Department on ways to improve its policing.  The department says it has implemented nearly all the recommendations, but it would serve the city well to have a second set of eyes examine that issue.