Mar 13, 2024 - News

Power Check — Police union opposes watchdog investigations

Illustration of a magnifying glass burning away a redaction to reveal documents and photos.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Fraternal Order of Police president Roosevelt Poplar tells Axios the union doesn't plan to cede power to the city's watchdog and is willing to fight in court to prevent the agency from conducting police misconduct investigations.

Why it matters: Proponents of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission say that stance leaves residents wondering how the agency can effectively and independently investigate citizen complaints against police officers.

Reality check: Last week, CPOC interim executive director Anthony Erace told commissioners the watchdog must negotiate with the union for the right to investigate citizen complaints against officers — the latest setback for an agency whose work has been plagued by delays, funding challenges and infighting.

  • A contract provision says the police union must provide "written consent" for any "changes necessary to effectuate" CPOC.
  • Commissioner Rosaura Torres Thomas said at last week's meeting that Philadelphia residents will not be "too thrilled" to learn CPOC's "hands are still tied" by the union.

Driving the news: While Erace hopes a deal can be struck, Poplar tells Axios the union "hasn't changed" its position on CPOC conducting misconduct probes and remains opposed.

  • Poplar is concerned about the quality of investigators the watchdog may hire and says police internal affairs is "very competent" and better equipped to handle misconduct probes despite concerns from citizens about the unit's independence.
  • He says the union is committed to taking CPOC to court if needed to ensure the status quo doesn't change.

What they're saying: "You're taking so many bites at the apple when you involve all these other outside agencies," Poplar said. "My mind is made up on that. I don't think they should be doing investigations."

The other side: Erace said the watchdog will begin negotiating with the union at the end of this year to try and reach an agreement allowing CPOC to investigate police misconduct as early as June 2025, when the current contract expires.

Yes, but: Some commissioners who attended last week's meeting believe the city law that established CPOC gives the agency the power to investigate officers.

  • Erace said the collective bargaining agreement supersedes city law.
  • Thomas told Axios she was disappointed to learn of Poplar's position and the union's threats to sue CPOC.
  • She says CPOC is prepared for a possible legal fight: "Bring it on, ese."

Meanwhile: Erace said that once the investigative unit led by Jamison Rogers is staffed, it can conduct "NTSB-style" investigations and issue after-action reports on high-profile police encounters without union interference.

  • He declined requests for comment but previously told Axios that ensuring police accountability in Philadelphia is a "long and nuanced process."

Zoom out: Philadelphia's watchdog is one of more than 160 civilian oversight agencies operating across the U.S., per the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

  • But fewer than a fifth of those agencies have investigative powers, including the ability to issue subpoenas, per a recent NACOLE survey.
  • A Washington Post investigation found police across the country "frequently defied efforts to impose civilian oversight" and often undermined the "ability of communities to hold law enforcement accountable." Many reform attempts ended in "failure and frustration," it said.

What we're watching: Erace has said he feels good about his rapport with union leaders, but is it enough to convince Poplar to change his position?

  • Poplar tells Axios he's only met with Erace once, and they didn't discuss the specifics of CPOC's mission. They have no upcoming meetings scheduled.

👁 Have an issue you want us to investigate with our Power Check series? Send tips by replying to this email or contact Isaac at [email protected].

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