Philly.Com OPINION by WILLIAM M. JOHNSON - April 13, 2009
Philadelphia, PA - Citing several recently exposed problems in the city Police Department, the Daily News editorial concerning "No Camera on Police" (April 3) was quick to conclude that we have no meaningful police oversight. But the fact that these situations are now coming under public scrutiny is, generally speaking, the direct result of the work being done every day by the agencies established to address such problems. Readers may recall that in the not-too-distant past, similar situations went on for years without public knowledge or scrutiny, with the result being an erosion of the community's trust in police.
Today, there's no shortage of those ready to assist in reforming the Police Department. Granted, the city's financial picture plays a significant role in the funding available for these issues, but what you find on closer examination is that problems of corruption and misconduct are being identified and addressed, individually and systemically, by the oversight agencies already in place. (Commissioner Charles Ramsey's swift action in dismissing four officers last year in the wake of videotaped beatings is proof.) In her 2004 report on officer involved shootings, Ellen Green Ceisler (then acting as integrity and accountability officer for the city) pointed to a long history of problems in the department. No doubt things have been slow to change. Officer-involved shootings take a significant amount of time to investigate, partly because of the level of bureaucracy and the need for the conclusions to be comprehensive and fair. But the results of those investigations are being monitored, reported on and in some instances independently investigated by the Police Advisory Commission, a civilian review board consisting of many who are experts in their fields, and bring a high level of competency to independent civilian oversight of police.
Agencies like the commission have been performing these tasks for more than 15 years, and over that time, have seen changes and made recommendations concerning many of the problems plaguing the department, including recommendations concerning individual officers. The commission previously recommended that the officers involved in the case of state Rep. Jewell Williams be placed on restricted duty after reviewing their complaint histories. (And to set the record straight, there is an integrity and accountability officer for the Police Department. Curtis Douglas has been on the job and is assuming a similar posture to that of his predecessor.)
Furthermore, despite suggestions to the contrary, the Police Department has been improving itself. The fact that these internal corruption issues are being made public is in part proof that the problems are not being ignored. In defense of the ongoing job of the department, the relatively few police officers who engage in these acts of corruption and misconduct march to their own beat. Somewhere, they missed the message of respect, integrity and honor that are the backbone of any good law-enforcement agency, including the Philadelphia Police Department. With all due respect to the editorial, the next time someone decides to compare Philadelphia police and the L.A. sheriff's office, they should note that the departments are about the same size, yet L.A. gets about 3,000 complaints annually, compared to Philadelphia's 600-700, one of the lowest numbers in the nation based on population and the size of the department. Make no mistake, we clearly have problems in the city, but when compared to other places, they are being managed well.
Finally, identifying the problems are one thing, effectively doing something is another. The creation of yet another independent oversight body would not only be redundant, but it would take years for the body to get up to speed in handling the issues related to misconduct and corruption, and by itself would be ill-equipped to achieve the effectiveness already attained by the existing entities. The Fact that everyone can now see these problems didn't come about by chance, but is due in large part to the diligent oversight work performed by agencies like the Police Advisory Commission, the Police Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, the city integrity officer and the administration itself. Is there more to do? Yes. Can a single agency do so more effectively? Doubtful. Rather than constantly calling for something new, we would all benefit by calling for additional resources for the existing entities engaged in this important work. William M. Johnson is executive director of the Police Advisory Commission.
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