Cops on the Ballot: PA Voters Weigh Stronger Civilian Oversight of Police

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Photo by Kim Davies

The cliche says that every election is the most important election of that generation’s lifetime, and the phrase will seemingly always be true. But some advocates say this election is the one to watch for signs of growing popular support for fundamental change in the justice system.

On Tuesday, voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh will have a chance to make significant changes to their home state’s criminal justice systems with proposed legislation featured on their ballots.

Philadelphia’s Question 3 would replace the city’s Police Advisory Commission with a Citizens Oversight Committee. In Pittsburgh, Question 3 proposes an expansion of the powers of the Independent Citizen Police Review Board.

Passage of both would signal to the rest of the state that many are ready for sweeping changes to their criminal justice system, and ready to address the way police misconduct cases are handled.

But getting here wasn’t easy.

Pennsylvania, as a swing state, has borne witness to clashes between residents who unequivocally support their local police departments, and others who say “Black Lives Matter,” and argue that the time for systematic criminal justice reform is long overdue within the battleground state.

Moreover, incidents like the murder of George Floyd and the more recent killing of Philadelphia resident Walter Wallace Jr., both at the hands of the police, have renewed countrywide and local efforts to expand civilian oversight of police departments as a whole.

Now, residents in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will have the chance to vote for the very changes many have been advocating for.

Police Oversight: Philadelphia

Voters in Philadelphia will be asked whether or not they support the city creating a new Citizens Police Oversight Commission. This new group, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, would replace the city’s existing Police Advisory Commission created by the mayor and led by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), which has been criticized for “lacking enough power to provide effective oversight” — especially in misconduct cases.

If passed, the City Council would then establish the commission and work on determining its own internal structure, limit of power, and operation budget.

The full text that on the ballot asks:

Shall the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to provide for the creation of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, and to authorize City Council to determine the composition, powers and duties of the Commission?

The ballot says the new Commission’s missions would be to evaluate the work of police officers, and hold the department accountable for misconduct, while improving communication between law enforcement and the community.

All eyes will be on Philadelphia, as the city has endured weeks of eruptive protests, clashes with law enforcement, and looting following the fatal shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. — resulting in more than 90 arrests and 30 injured officers, CBS News details. 

Many locals are saying that tension in Philadelphia between residents and law enforcement has never been so high.

Independent Citizen Review Board: Pittsburgh

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, Pittsburgh residents also have a monumental criminal justice-related choice to make on their November 3rd ballot — determining whether or not the city will expand the powers of their Independent Citizen Police Review Board (CPRB) to allow independent investigations of police misconduct.

The pared-down text appearing on the ballot says:

Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter… [expand] the powers of the Independent Citizen Police Review Board to allow the Board to require police officers to participate in investigations, conducting performance audits of the Police Bureau and preventing the removal of Board members except for just cause and with City Council approval?

While some say this is a no-brainer, others question the effectiveness of a civilian review board.

The latest data on civilian review board effectiveness shows that while it can improve public trust in police and reduce bias in investigations of officers, these CPRBs are “ineffective in executing thorough investigations and bringing about discipline, according to Public Source.

In the decades past, only 3 percent of the more than 3,000 documented complaints in Pittsburgh have resulted in public hearings followed by civilian recommendations — most of which were “fully rejected” by the Pittsburgh’s police chiefs, according to Public Source.

However, Heath Grant, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Public Source that CPRB’s 3 percent hearing rate, while low, is in line with models in other cities of similar demographic and size.

He said the rates are generally low for two main reasons: the first being that the local police departments don’t prioritize being active participants in these investigations, the second reason being that the civilian investigators aren’t trained — resulting in poor questioning.

But Will It Make a Difference? 

Pennsylvania State Rep. Summer Lee, a Democrat representing the 34th District and founder of UNITE!, a self-described unapologetic progressive and grassroots group, has been spending her time leading up to the election organizing volunteers around Pittsburgh near voting locations to help educate the public on why voting “Yes” on their local ballot measures matters.

However, she admits education may not be enough.

There’s a history of clashes between Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter protesters in PA, and with Trump doing rally after rally in the state and talking about defunding the police, some voters may see the language of “citizen” and “oversight” on the questions in their ballot and vote “No” because of Trump’s rhetoric.

One Twitter user, after hearing of a local news station’s rendition of the Pittsburgh ballot measure regarding CPRBs tweeted in response, “What a great idea! Not!”

Other experts are similarly skeptical. They argue that even if the boards functioned effectively, they aren’t likely to fundamentally transform officer behavior.

“If somebody does not belong on the job, no level of accountability will stop him or her from doing the wrong thing,” Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told Public Source.

Ultimately, Haberfeld believes, a more effective measure would be to hire an oversight company, like KPMG or RAND Corporation to inspect a department’s training.

While these measures may not be someone’s first choice in reform strategies, many argue that something is better than nothing.

“What we hope is that on November 3rd, that we’re not facing just an end, but we’re facing a beginning,” said Rep. Summer Lee.

Lee concluded, “November 3rd is the day that we begin to rebuild this society.”

The Live results of Philadelphia’s Police Oversight ballot can be accessed here.

The Live results of Pittsburgh’s HRC Amendment can be accessed here.

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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