PHILADELPHIA – Barbara Laker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, covers stories of police corruption and brutality in the city. She has sat on the stoops and in the living rooms of women who were sexually assaulted by officers. She has spoken to the shop owners whose merchandise was stolen and security cameras disabled in targeted “drug raids.” Laker and her partner, Wendy Ruderman, uncovered atrocities in a series called “Tainted Justice.”
“Some of the stuff that happens goes under the radar, and the people who are victimized feel voiceless,” Laker said.
The Police Advisory Commission, is trying to give victims a voice. It is the official civilian oversight agency and investigates claims of police misconduct. Victims can use the group instead of lawyers and complaints filed with the Internal Affairs Bureau to pursue charges against Philadelphia authorities.
“They really believe that if they told their side of the story and the cop told his, the cop would be believed,” Laker said of the police brutality victims. “They feel that they don’t have power in the city and won’t be heard.”
In the most recent report issued by the PAC, 280 complaints were filed in 2008, the most ever recorded in its 17 years of operation. Approximately 143 were investigated. William Johnson, the executive director, said the number of successful cases couldn’t be determined because some are still ongoing.
PAC staff members and city officials are campaigning for a spring ballot question to determine PAC’s permanent status in the city’s charter. This would ensure the group is not abolished by future administrations that might oppose the commission.
“We are trying to make sure neglect or benign neglect doesn’t happen,” said Everett Gillison, the deputy mayor of public safety, who is spearheading the initiative. “It has suffered a lot for lack of investment.”
William Johnson, the executive director of PAC, said administrations previous to Mayor Michael Nutter’s did not fully invest in or support its development.
“Some prior administrations were not favorable to the commission or the work that it does,” said Johnson, 52, of Germantown. “Prior administrations had a pattern of ignoring appointments of new members.”
Gillison agreed that PAC’s stunted development was a result of previous city leaders who did not support the oversight commission.
“There is always going to be tension whenever you have someone overseeing what you are doing,” said Gillison, as he sat behind tidy piles of paperwork in his high-rise City Hall office. “But that oversight is a good thing.”
Gillison said Mayor Nutter’s work to combat police brutality and corruption with Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in 2008 was stalled with the economic downturn. He was forced to cut four PAC staff members, shrinking the commission to fewer than 10 employees.
Mayor Nutter tapped Gillison this year to campaign for the legislation. It must be approved by the City Council before it can be placed on the May ballot.
“The downturn has been going on for the past two years and we still aren’t out of the woods yet,” Gillison said. “But we are now in a position to reform the structural element instead of laying people off and raising taxes.”
Johnson said the permanent status would ensure the commission’s survival through guaranteed funding and regular member appointments. He added that the budget for about seven full-time employees was $290,000.
“We have looked at what it would take to adequately fund an oversight agency in Philadelphia given the size of the police department,” Johnson said. “We came to a figure of about $600,000 for an agency that deals with about 7,000 in the police department.”
Gillison said he hopes the increase in funds would allow for the hire of one or two more investigators.
Mayor Nutter also appointed 18 new commissioners to PAC in April and September. The newly appointed members do not conduct investigations of brutality or corruption, but read the materials and deliver an opinion in a court case.
Multiple calls and e-mails to the press office of the Philadelphia Police Department were not returned.
Reaching out to the neighborhoods
Jamira Burley’s family history with crime and police confrontations propelled her to work with PAC to spread the knowledge of its existence and resources in the community.
“People don’t know about PAC and what it can do for them,” said Burley, a 22-year-old senior at Temple University and the youngest member of PAC. “Hopefully people will realize these things are here to help their situation.”
She remembers the police breaking down her door to arrest various members of her family for robberies, drug violations and murder. Her mother and 10 older brothers have been in and out of jail, and her father is currently serving a life sentence.
“This is the time to make a change otherwise people are going to lose faith in the administration,” said Burley, perched in her cubicle next to a photo memorial of her brother who was killed in street violence several years ago. “Brutality has always been an issue, but its really being brought to the forefront.”
Burley said that despite her family’s background with the authorities, she understands the difficulties of the profession, and her siblings do not hold grudges against the arresting officers.
“I never had any animosity toward the police,” Jamira said. “I knew they were doing their job.”
While PAC commissioners and Gillison support the movement and boast about its imperative nature, Burley is apprehensive that the public will not recognize PAC’s name on the ballot.
“I’m skeptical and not sure people will know what they voted on when they leave the box,” Burley said. “We haven’t done enough to show useful the PAC can really be.”
Johnson said his greatest concern is the time it will take the City Council to approve the legislation and draft the question for the vote.
“I think those who do know us will have the opportunity to realize the value of citizen oversight,” Johnson said. “That will carry on the day of the vote.”
Gillison said he was about 50 percent confident that the City Council would approve the ballot question this year.
“I think we will put together a campaign to have people understand why it’s necessary,” Gillison said. “There is a lot of responsibility on PAC to be relevant.”
How a PAC case is set up
Johnson said PAC cases begin after a complaint is filed and the investigators determine if the claim has merit. PAC employees conduct interviews with the alleged victims and perpetrators and gather evidence before issuing an opinion to the Internal Affairs Bureau of the police department. The statement is later used in court.
Greg Bucceroni, a member of the Crime Victim’s Support Services and advocate of PAC, said civilian oversight is needed, citing a rise in police brutality and corruption.
“I would never bring anything to the Philadelphia Police Internal Affairs,” said Bucceroni, 46, a Philadelphia native. “I won’t wipe my a– with anything from Internal Affairs.”
Bucceroni said his brother, Charles, was assaulted by Philadelphia police officers in 2003 and later pressed charges. He said his brother dealt with corruption in the internal affairs investigation, but was later awarded more than a million dollars. Charles declined to comment.
“Johnson does the best he can, but he is at the mercy of it all,” Bucceroni said. “The only way to get rid of the corruption is to clean house, but that ain’t never going to happen.”
Johnson said if the legislation isn’t on the May ballot, it could be rehashed for the November vote.
“This has been an eight year process, and we are closer then we have ever been,” Johnson said. “Whether its in May or November is insignificant to me, as long as we can move forward.”
Mayor Nutter sponsored the legislation to create PAC in 1994 while he was a city councilman. Since its conception, the commission has received 2,425 complaints of brutality and corruption.
“The idea of physical threats was a reality for commission members,” Johnson said. “Anyone who wanted to stand up for accountability had a lot of opposition to confront at that time.”
On Dec. 14, City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller held a public hearing on police brutality where victims are invited to share their experiences with misconduct. Johnson, Gillison, and Burley agreed that the effort could enhance the community’s recognition of the commission.
“You could throw the encyclopedia of knowledge at them, but until they have a face people too often forget about (PAC),” Jamira said. “But over the past few weeks, people have started to realize who PAC is.”
Gillison said he supports the good cops, but wants to see the change in corruption and brutality like everyone else.
“To call for an end to police brutality is like saying ‘I vote for air,’” Gillison said. “We want to go after people who dishonor the badge.”