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August 04, 2016

Police Advisory Commission is public's eyes and ears on Philly officers

Empowered agency still feeling its way on oversight of police-involved shootings

Police Community Policing
08022016_Brandon_Tate_Brown_FB Source/Facebook

Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, was shot to death by Philadelphia police in a struggle during a routine traffic stop in Mayfair on Dec. 15, 2014. One of the two officers who stopped Brown told investigators he spotted the handle of a gun in the center console of the vehicle before shooting Tate-Brown once in the head. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing by the city and District Attorney Seth Williams.

Last week, with all eyes on Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention, the city's police force by all accounts acted admirably – monitoring protests all weekhanging out with protesters and not having to make even one arrest

But while the police were watching the protesters, at least one civilian group was watching the police. 

Members of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission spent the week dressed in neon green vests, watching events unfold at street level and monitoring protesters and the police response to their actions during the four-day convention. 

"I think they really did an amazing job," Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the PAC, said of the police department.

Anderson rode a bicycle from City Hall to South Philadelphia during the convention and said he was pleasantly surprised to see protesters celebrating their First Amendment rights peacefully. Even during some of the "rougher-type things," like protesters climbing fences in a restricted area outside the Wells Fargo Center, he said the police response was measured. 

"I thought their tactics were good. There were no horses, which, I thought, could get intimidating, and there was no riot gear," said Anderson. "It just seemed really well thought out." 

PAC  provides independent civilian oversight of police operations in Philadelphia. Its presence at the DNC was just one aspect of what it does on a daily basis.

With recent events, both locally and nationally, the relationship between police and the communities they serve is under a microscope.

Philadelphia has a history of sour police-community relations — including Frank Rizzo's iron-fist rule of the department in the late 1960s and early 1970s and then as mayor, and the May 13, 1985, bombing of the MOVE home that killed 11. The PAC was created to provide civilians with a tool to make sure such abuses of power never happen again. Critics, however, say it has no real power.

The Black Lives Matter protest during the second day of the DNC once again shined a light on those who have died at the hands of — or in the custody of — police across the country. As they marched, protesters called out the names of lives lost.

While it did not get the national exposure of some other police-involved deaths of unarmed African-American men – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, to name a few – Philadelphia has its own recent case.

Brandon Tate-Brown, 26, was shot to death by police in a struggle during a routine traffic stop in Mayfair on Dec. 15, 2014. One of the two officers who stopped Tate-Brown told investigators he spotted the handle of a gun in the center console of the vehicle before shooting Tate-Brown once in the head. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing by the city and District Attorney Seth Williams, but Tate-Brown's family is pursuing federal civil rights claims against the city and personal claims against the officers.

"A large portion of black America has a problem with police because of those type of interactions," Anderson said during a recent interview. 

Anderson said his agency still hasn't quite figured out how to handle the Tate-Brown case. 

"To be honest, we are trying to figure it out," he said. But that doesn't mean it won't be addressed.

NoneHayden Mitman /PhillyVoice

Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission.


BORNE OF CORRUPTION

In Philadelphia, when residents have complaints about the men in blue, the Police Advisory Commission is one of very few avenues available to file a complaint and have it investigated. 

Formed in its current incarnation in 1993 — a similar Police Advisory Board was founded in 1958 but was disbanded by the 1970s — the oversight agency monitors police activity in the city, investigates complaints against police, analyzes police data and acts as an intermediary between the department and the public. 

Anderson, 57, of West Philadelphia, said the PAC was formed in response to a corruption scandal in the 1990s in the city's 39th District, which serves parts of East Falls and North Philadelphia. In that case, officers were found to have been abusing their power, fabricating evidence and stealing from drug dealers. It was called the "biggest police scandal in Philadelphia history." Fallout from that scandal impacted more than a thousand cases and led to hundreds of overturned convictions. 

Following the scandal, then-City Councilman Michael Nutter, who would later serve as the city's mayor, traveled to other cities to learn what they were doing to map out a plan for Philadelphia's PAC.

"We were created following the constant presence of major complaints against police," said Anderson. "Either they didn't acknowledge them or, if they did something with them, they certainly didn't acknowledge that they did anything with them... " 

Though created to monitor law enforcement and halt corruption within the police force, the PAC's effectiveness has long been criticized.

While the PAC can investigate complaints against police, subpoena documents and information and question police officers, it does not have the power to fire officers. Writing in Philadelphia Magazine in 2012, attorney Michael Coard lambasted the oversight agency, saying without the ability to fire officers, "It can’t do s***. Well, it can do s***—in the form of meaningless recommendations and advice."

Anderson disagrees, however.

"What people tend to look at is, 'Does the board have the ability to hire and fire police officers?' That's viewed by some folks as an absolute, in terms of what you can do," he said. "I've come to believe something different... We realize not everything needs to be dealt with as a disciplinary action, a firing or what have you. We're very focused in this country on the punishment aspect of what's wrong with police and community relations. I'm not dismissing that. In fact, one of the reasons that I want to separate out the parts of what we do, is because I want to figure out, 'OK, how good are Internal Affairs investigations?'" 

For the most part, the PAC passes complaints directly to the Philadelphia Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau to have them investigated. It then audits the findings of that internal investigation. 

"The reality is, even if we were to invest resources and come up with our own conclusion, if Internal Affairs hadn't rendered a decision, the commissioner is going to send it back to them anyway," said Anderson. "If he doesn't, I guarantee the FOP [police union] will have that before an arbitrator in no time."

But the PAC performs its own investigations as well. 

For example, he said, the agency is conducting interviews with the medical examiner, friends and others in the January 2012 death of Erica Koschman. Koschman, 29, was found dead of a gunshot wound to her head in the bedroom of her home in Mayfair. The medical examiner ruled Koschman's death a suicide. 

It has been reported, however, that Koschman had a "volatile" relationship with her fiancé, a Philadelphia police officer.  

"This case was called a suicide and we are questioning what may have occurred," said Anderson. "We felt that was an important one to take a look at."


LIMITED BUDGET, LIMITED INVESTIGATIONS

The PAC is selective about which cases to investigate directly out of necessity, Anderson said. With only three investigators on staff, the agency's ability to review complaints is limited.

Koschman's case is one of 39 open investigations into complaints received since 2014. So far this year, 16 complaints against the police have been received. The PAC also gets copies of all complaints – from residents or fellow officers – to Internal Affairs and then audits the results of those investigations. 

"We have to look at all the complaints," Anderson said. 

Conducting limited, full investigations and audits on all cases presents a full workload for just four staffers and an administrative assistant. The PAC is currently working on its annual report.

"I believe discipline should rest with head of the police. There's an assumption that shifting that burden toward citizens could create something that's more just. Maybe, maybe not." – Kelvyn Anderson

Anderson said he wishes he had enough resources to investigate all cases. But with an annual budget of about $300,000, Anderson said the agency needs to be smart about how to utilize its resources.

The PAC had hoped for additional funding in the most recent round of budgeting — before elected mayor, Jim Kenney reportedly said he'd like to see the PAC budget increased to $1.5 million in the next three years — but it received no budget increase for 2017.

Anderson said he's hoping to lobby for increased funding again next year and eventually have an annual budget of about $1 million a year, enough to increase the staff to nine. 

Most of the complaints the PAC receives tend to be lack-of-service complaints — "the police didn't arrive quickly enough" — or neighborhood disputes that involve police through the nature of their work, said Anderson. 

Complaints tend to be aimed at how police handled the outcome of a dispute, not necessarily the actions of a specific officer. 

"A lot of calls we get are when they have a problem with a situation, like a neighborhood dispute," said Anderson. "In some of these cases, police might not be the primary problem, although because police are called to take some action or do something in connection to what happened to the person, this could end up becoming a police issue." 

In fact, according to Anderson, complaints from the public often turn into "he said, she said" affairs.

"I believe discipline should rest with head of the police. There's an assumption that shifting that burden toward citizens could create something that's more just. Maybe, maybe not," said Anderson.

 

'LET THE DEPARTMENT SOLVE ITS OWN PROBLEMS'

In most cases, Anderson believes the PAC can "let the department solve its own problems." He touted the district's ability to interact with the community, noting that most district captains make themselves available at least once a month in district town hall meetings. Districts offer police meet-and-greets, as well. 

Anderson noted that one of the main things he hears from the community is that "police don't report on each other." 

But it's not true, he said, noting he not only sees cops reporting on bad cops, but such complaints result in disciplinary action at a higher rate. 

"One of the things we've found out about how oversight boards function, in some cases, citizens are no more, or are less punitive than actual police departments when they make actual decisions on cases," he said. "As we sift through complaints, there's citizen complaints and a category of internal complaints filed by fellow officers or the DA's Office. Those internal complaints, as it turns out, are sustained at a much higher rate than a citizen's. My theory is, you're starting at a higher threshold if you're another cop or a supervisor. It's not that cops don't file complaints against other officers. They do. And, when that happens, nearly half of them are sustained. In comparison, with citizens' complaints, you have a rate of about 13 percent."

But what happens when officers are involved in shootings, as in the Tate-Brown case?

The Philadelphia Police Department has "a lot of moving parts" when it comes to investigating its own officers, Anderson said. Police-involved shootings are investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau and the department's own internal Board of Inquiry.

The PAC is developing protocol to handle civilian oversight of fatal police shootings going forward after it was empowered by the city as recommended in a U.S. Department of Justice report released last year. 

In October, the PAC's oversight was enhanced in all uses of police force, including police-involved shootings.

Specifically, the commission:

• Will be contacted by the department immediately when there is a police-involved shooting so it can send an observer to the scene to get a briefing from the lead investigator before the scene is released

• Gets access to data related to any internal investigation into police misconduct, including police-involved shootings — even in years-old cases

• Received a seat on the department's Use of Force Review Board, which reviews all officer-involved shootings. 

As a member of the Use of Force Review Board, Anderson has equal standing with the four deputy police commissioners in determining if use of force is justified in a shooting. In this role, he can "examine tactics, make recommendations around [police] training or do whatever the situation might require," he said. 

"The way we handle a fatal case is, frankly, emerging," he said. "We have, since roughly 2007 or so, had [worked with] people whose families have been involved in shootings. We've thought about what exactly we can do to be helpful in those situations, in terms of helping the family get information from the police department, or in the larger sense, get the agency to a point where we can make our own decisions about a shooting."

While PAC investigators have "been to a few" scenes of police-involved shootings since last year, Anderson said he's mostly held off on going to scenes for now until they get proper training to assess the scene of a police-involved shooting. PAC members plan to travel to Las Vegas in October in order to attend required training courses.

"We are still trying to write the protocol on how this will all work," he said. "Once we have everything in place, we will begin responding to shootings as appropriate."

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