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Civilian Oversight of Police in Philadelphia: The First 50 Years

NCJ Number
Bruria Tal
Date Published
November 2003
28 pages
This paper traces Philadelphia's history and experience with the civilian oversight of police, beginning in the 1950's as a "pioneering venture" to the present (2003).
Mayor J. Richardson Dilworth established the Police Review Board by executive order in October 1958. The Board accepted complaints against police, ascertained their validity, and recommended disciplinary action to the police department. The Board had no subpoena power. In 1967 a city judge ruled that Mayor Dilworth's creation of the Board had been illegal. The State Supreme Court reversed this decision years later, but the mayor decided to let the police commissioner handle police abuse complaints. Between 1969 and 1994 complaints were filed mostly through the police department's Internal Affairs Division. By 1992 Philadelphia's issues of police-community relations resembled the nationwide issues of increasing allegations of police misconduct. The Coalition of Police Accountability (CPA), representing about 30 community and legal groups, was established to end police abuse against citizens. The CPA proposed a permanent police advisory board to investigate citizens' complaints against police and to review police policies and practices. On June 10, 1993, the City Council, overriding the mayor's veto, passed Bill no. 317 to create a Police Advisory Board, and Bill no. 297, which defined police department complaint handling procedures. The Police Advisory Commission was established January 1, 1994, to improve police community relations and to investigate individual civilian complaints against police. Over the 10 years following its creation, the Commission faced some challenges that threatened its existence, as relations with the police department posed some critical problems over the years. The Fraternal Order of Police mounted legal challenges to the existence of the Commission and continued to oppose the Commission even after the Commission's mandate had been reinforced by court decisions. Between 1994 and 2003, the Commission initiated or completed numerous public panel hearings on citizens' complaints against police. The notion of police accountability that provides the base for the Commission's existence and operations has been steadily gaining public recognition in the wake of publicity about several local and national high-profile incidents that have involved police brutality, corruption, racial profiling, and shootings. Civilian review emphasizes that the police department, like other government agencies, is accountable to the citizenry, and that mutual respect and cooperation are essential for improving police-community relations. 52 references and appended description of community lines of police accountability and sample complaint forms