Jan 16, 2024 - News

Philly police oversight group hasn't investigated any complaints since it started

Illustration of many magnifying glasses examining a police badge

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Citizens Police Oversight Commission hasn't investigated a single citizen complaint of police misconduct since it was created in 2021, the watchdog agency's leadership has acknowledged to Axios.

Why it matters: For now, all citizen complaints of police misconduct are still turned over to police internal affairs.

  • The agency's director of investigations, Jamison Rogers, tells Axios he's in the process of putting together an investigative unit. He acknowledged that redirecting complaints back to the police isn't ideal because some residents who turn to the CPOC don't have faith in internal affairs.
  • The commission's mission is to improve police officer conduct and accountability and restore community trust in the department.

By the numbers: CPOC received 137 citizen complaints in 2023, including one involving officers who responded to a call about a distressed woman who was later killed in a hit-and-run.

  • About a quarter of the complaints included allegations that police officers had committed physical abuse, civil rights violations, falsification, sexual misconduct, drug use, or some other crime, per city data.
  • The agency has sole discretion over which misconduct complaints it investigates, per city law.

Driving the news: Some commissioners and residents told Axios they're concerned that CPOC isn't further along, but commission leaders say they're confident in the process and hope to hire more than a dozen investigators over the next eight months.

The other side: CPOC leaders acknowledged frustrations but also touted the watchdog's progress in 2023, including advocating for the firing and prosecution of three officers involved in separate encounters.

  • "Why isn't this building built yet? Well, you didn't pour the concrete or the foundation yet," says interim executive director Anthony Erace, who envisions CPOC conducting "NTSB-style" investigations once the unit is formed. "People notice when you trip. They don't notice when you're running. We're creating the standard in Philadelphia. Sometimes that's going to look a little messy."
  • Further complicating the matter, the commission could face hurdles once its investigative unit is operational if the city's police union opposes its power to look into citizen complaints.
  • The union declined Axios' request for comment.

Flashback: Much of the commission's struggles stem from infighting among commissioners. In April 2023, then-vice chair Afroza Hossain and two other commissioners, Benjamin Lerner and Maryelis Santiago, resigned from the board amid a dispute with colleagues over hiring the agency's permanent executive director.

  • Hossain wrote in her resignation letter that the commission had become so "toxic" and "dysfunctional" that it needed to be dissolved.
  • No "sane and sensible" person wanted to be involved with an organization that could damage their professional reputation, she wrote.

The big picture: The fight over the executive director was a harbinger of CPOC's struggles last year.

  • Two commissioners faced scrutiny for billing for activities not specifically covered by city law.

Plus, Hossain wrote that commissioners at one point imposed a monthslong staff hiring freeze that kept CPOC from bringing in some "very talented candidates."

  • That delayed the ramping up of a unit that would investigate citizens' complaints of police misconduct.
  • The agency is seeking an additional $1.3 million in city funding, which would raise its overall budget to $4.3 million.

Zoom out: Almost a year after the three commissioners exited, CPOC still doesn't have a permanent executive director in place and the seats remain vacant.

Zoom in: CPOC pushed for the dismissal of Mark Dial, the former Philadelphia police officer charged with murder in September in the shooting death of Eddie Irizarry.

  • The commission got involved in a records fight with Axios over a letter sent by Erace to law enforcement calling for Dial's firing.
  • The agency also referred a separate case to the Philadelphia District Attorney's office for possible prosecution of two officers who responded to a call in 2022 involving Elizabeth Negron, a distressed woman who was lying in the middle of a roadway blocking traffic in Germantown.
  • Officers were captured on video briefly talking to her and then driving off. Negron was later struck and killed in a hit-and-run that remains unsolved.

The intrigue: Business owner Kaitln Orner tells Axios she initially filed a complaint with internal affairs, believing the two officers deserved to be disciplined for not doing more to help Negron.

  • She couldn't get answers about whether the officers were punished, so she turned to CPOC for help.
  • Orner says Rogers interviewed her last spring as part of what she was told was an "inquiry," a more limited review of the case than an investigation that includes systematic evidence-gathering.
  • She eventually learned the case was referred to prosecutors but she hasn't been provided details of the commission's findings.
  • "We still don't even know who the officers are," Orner says. "The only way to build trust in the community again is to be very open and honest with what's going on."

The bottom line: Rogers tells Axios that he was limited in what he could share about the inquiry into the Negron case, but he planned to release a full public report outlining his findings in the coming months.

  • "I'm not going to let them down. I'm going to deliver in every possible way that I can," Rogers says. "There is going to be a second set of eyes [on the police], and those second set of eyes aren't wearing PPD badges."

Meanwhile: Prosecutors didn't respond to requests for comment about the referral.

Details: Some of the broader concerns about transparency were also apparent in the way the commission dealt with fallout over the fatal shooting of Irizarry, one of more than a dozen police shootings last year.

  • Rogers says the case represented a seminal moment for police oversight in Philadelphia, because advocates had for years fought for access to crime scenes, evidence and bodycam footage.
  • Rogers says he watched the bodycam footage within two hours of the encounter. It was integral to the case after police initially said Irizarry was armed with a knife and lunged at officers before being shot.
  • The footage showed that Irizarry remained seated inside his vehicle, with a small pocket knife pressed against his leg.

Prosecutors later said Irizarry posed no threat to Dial when the officer opened fire within seconds of stepping out of his patrol car. His lawyers have argued that Dial shot Irizarry because he thought he was armed and feared for his life.

  • "When I saw it, my heart sank," says Rogers, who compiled as much information as he could about the shooting and shared his findings with Erace.
  • Erace later sent a letter to police and prosecutors calling for Dial's firing, which led to a records fight with Axios over the letter not being publicly released.
  • An appeals officer ruled in CPOC's favor after the agency said the letter was investigatory.

The bottom line: Hans Menos with the Center for Policing Equity and the former executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, which preceded CPOC, tells Axios that the commission should be further along but blamed many of its problems on commissioners.

  • He said their micromanaging and adversarial style amounted to interference in Erace's ability to lead day-to-day operations, leaving him in an "untenable" position between standing up for his staff and maintaining a working relationship with commissioners while still vying for the permanent job.
  • "The board's job is to respect the work of hundreds of people that made it possible for them to be board members," Menos says.

What we're watching: Erace is working on getting a progress report over to new Mayor Cherelle Parker later this month.

  • He tells Axios that change is slow and arduous and "about persuasion, not bullying."
  • "Nobody has ever changed my mind that was screaming at me," he says. "We want reform to happen because they're good and smart ideas. The wrecking ball approach is not one that achieves a lot of success."

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