April 13, 2021

The CPOC Bill: Community Control of the Police in Philadelphia?

Philly voted overwhelmingly in November to create a "Citizens Police Oversight Commission". CM Jones has a bill in committee which would define the CPOC, but unfortunately it falls short of true community control in a number of ways.

The CPOC Bill: Community Control of the Police in Philadelphia?

Every upsurge in the movement for racial and economic justice since the 1950’s has forced the Philadelphia political establishment to respond to calls for community control of the police by establishing review boards, advisory commissions, or police misconduct units.  Each variant has been underfunded, ineffective and challenged in court by the police union, the FOP. The mass protests sparked by the vicious murder of George Floyd under the knee of Derek Chauvin and the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in her own home were no different.

Philadelphia City Council responded to the call to defund police by cancelling a scheduled increase in the police budget—and scandalously restored the money in a mid-year transfer, once public spotlight had shifted to other pressing issues. In sharp contrast, Philadelphia voters expressed their strong support for Black lives and their desire to rein in police violence by approving two ballot questions by overwhelming margins in the November 2020 election. We voted 'yes' to make stop-and-frisk unlawful by 83% and 'yes' to create a Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) by 79%.

The ballot question creating the Citizens Police Oversight Commission empowered City Council to work out all of the details. In February, Councilmember Curtis Jones introduced the bill which would lay out the process for selecting the members of the CPOC and outline its powers. The legislation does not specify how the Commission will be funded, an essential question. The proposed legislation gives CPOC the power to subpoena members of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) during its independent investigations and could call public hearings if its recommendations for discipline toward racist and violent cops are rejected by the police commissioner.

Democratic elections, not appointments

However, even this victory has serious limitations. Currently as proposed in the legislation, the Mayor and City Council will appoint a five-member selection panel. This selection panel would then appoint nine members to the CPOC body via soliciting applications. While there can be no city employees, active or former PPD or FOP members on the selection panel, that is not true for the actual CPOC body. In fact, the legislation makes clear that applicants with experience in “law enforcement” should be prioritized for appointment to the CPOC body, meaning active or retired police officers will likely be included. Essentially, this renders CPOC a mayor-plus-city-council appointed body.

Philadelphia’s political establishment, presided over by Democratic Council President Darrell Clarke and Mayor Kenney, have repeatedly repressed Black Lives Matter protests through mass arrests and tear-gassing Black working class neighborhoods. It’s ludicrous to now propose that they decide who will be appointed to this body, rather than the regular working people of Philadelphia. A mayor-plus-city-council appointed board will most likely end up like the Police Advisory Commission (PAC) which proved to be completely ineffective in punishing misconduct after the fact, never mind preventing police brutality.

To prevent CPOC from becoming PAC version 2.0, the next few months will be crucial for BLM activists, unions, and working people to organize an effective campaign to take the reins from City Hall and make the CPOC into the vehicle through which working people can have real oversight over the police: democratically elected community control.

Two Roles: Protect Private Property and Crush Dissent

It’s important to recognize that many working people, while sometimes not feeling safe around police, do see them as agents of public safety. This includes many Black people living in areas torn apart by gun violence and who, themselves, are the primary victims of police brutality. However, few have any illusions about the racism of the PPD, only a lack of alternatives. It’s a choice of lesser evilism: “Do I call the racist cops? Or do I weather the storm, and hope nothing happens?”

However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the police don’t keep working people safe. The PPD has around 6,500 sworn police officers and yet, only 21% of shootings since 2018 have resulted in an arrest. This is despite high tech, multi-million dollar mass surveillance programs such as Operation Pinpoint which gives police access to virtually every camera in Black communities labeled “crime hot-spots”. Still there is no end in sight for the gun crime epidemic.

We live in a deeply divided capitalist society where a very tiny elite hoard vast wealth and tremendous political power. In contrast, the working class majority struggles to provide the basics—housing, healthcare, food, education—on a daily basis, without effective organizations to fight for what they need in either the workplace or in politics. The ever-widening wealth gap is just the first ingredient in this toxic cocktail—racism, sexism and all other oppressions endemic in our society intensify the potential for an explosive reaction to the status quo.

The police are one of the most effective instruments of social control in the arsenal of the ruling class and big business like Comcast. The rich need the police in order to protect big businesses’ property and profits and to crush political dissent by regular people. That's one of the reasons why the police maintain an incredible stockpile of crowd control weapons.

During the George Floyd rebellion, the PPD worked to protect Center City’s shiny office towers while tear gassing and arresting protestors and Black working class communities. Meanwhile, the PPD allowed right-wing vigilantes, armed with weapons from axes to semi-automatic rifles, to roam the streets of Fishtown and parts of South Philadelphia. The PPD allowed these repulsive actions because, at the end of the day, right-wing vigilantes and the PPD had the same goals to protect the property of big business and the wealthy.

The killing of Walter Wallace by the PPD further exposed the true role of policing under capitalism: despite Walter Wallace's mother repeatedly calling for an ambulance, only cops came, armed with weapons. Wallace’s mother recounted how during one encounter, officers laughed as she and Walter argued. After Wallace was killed, city officials shamefully revealed that around 50% of Philly cops don’t have tasers. Walter Wallace’s murder is a stark reminder of the depth and tragic conclusions of police violence in our city.

Racist Policing is a Political Problem...

Voter approval of CPOC provides an opening to push for decisive, substantive reforms. The most thoroughgoing change would be realized by legislation which established a democratically elected community control board with power to hire and fire police officers, set police department policies and budget priorities, negotiate with the FOP, and independently investigate complaints against the police department. Democratically electing working-class representatives with strong ties to their neighborhoods and workplaces to police oversight bodies is essential for them to be truly effective for their communities. The Jones legislation falls short of what is needed by its failure to give the commission adequate, enforceable authority over the police; by its reliance on appointed Commission members which will prefer figures with ties to the Democratic Party leadership and law enforcement; and by a complete lack of funding to investigate racist police violence.

Once established, an effective commission would need to organize mass community meetings to discuss how the police are currently operating in the communities and what needs to change, work out a plan to address gun violence and establish public safety in the neighborhood. Out of these meetings, community safety committees could be elected to monitor and report on police conduct in an on-going way. Unions, socialist and progressive organizations, and other sections of working people can link up with these community groups to bolster the fight against racist policing. The Jones bill would allow for community meetings but only if the police commissioner rejects the recommendations of the CPOC— that is, as a backstop at the end of the process, not as an essential part of the on-going process and not as a necessary first step in determining what needs to be done.

The mission of the CPOC has powerful enemies in city government and the police department. The failure of the Jones legislation to define any funding source leaves the future CPOC vulnerable to political attack cloaked as budget cuts. CPOC legislation should earmark a portion of the $1.9 billion Biden stimulus money coming into the city to jump start the CPOC and define a clear and adequate funding stream for the following years.

Those powerful enemies will also fall back on the tired argument that the police union contract prevents civilian oversight of the police. The FOP contract is a concrete impediment, but one that has a political solution. All union contracts are subject to the law. It is true that the police are so important to the billionaire class that their position is protected by a web of interwoven legislation and court rulings at the city, state and federal level. However, it’s patently ridiculous for city lawmakers to throw up their hands and point the finger at Harrisburg. City lawmakers truly working in the interest of Philadelphia’s Black working class would get their own house in order, and then take the fight to Harrisburg.

The CPOC, if established according to the current language of the Jones legislation, offers opportunities to make some positive changes and can inject new energy into the police oversight body but will not solve the problem of racist police violence. Our movements must continue to be engaged in this struggle to ensure that we get the maximum positive change offered by the CPOC process. City Hall, the FOP, and the PPD oppose community control of the police and there will be constant pressure to undercut even these moderate changes. To get more, we will have to get more organized.  In addition to our movement organizing, we need political organizing.

The mayor appoints the police commissioner and is the final authority for all police department policy and procedure. We elect the mayor and, by rights, should already be in control. But we are not. Instead, control rests with the corporate funders of the Democratic party who need the police to be their proxies on picket lines, at evictions, foreclosures and peaceful protests.

A Political Solution

An independent working class political party funded by working class people, fighting uncompromisingly in our interests and accountable to us would be a powerful tool in this struggle. A political party of our own would position working-class communities to constantly challenge not only racist policing but City Hall’s handouts and tax breaks for corporations, developers and wealthy nonprofits— handouts that deplete the city treasury. Without such an organized force, the result is austerity budgets and cuts to libraries, schools, transit, streets—increasing insecurity, poverty, stress and augmenting preventable underlying drivers of violence.

An independent working class political party could organize together with democratic membership community organizations and BLM chapters to coalesce disparate struggles into a more powerful unified assault. Elected officials from this party could act as “organizers in chief” and use public office as a bullhorn for all the struggles of the working class and oppressed.

Only working people can ensure public safety in their communities, not the PPD and not the political establishment. There is no legislation that could make policing non-racist in a capitalist society. Police departments, and the capitalist class which employs them, will never accept being controlled by regular people in Philadelphia, which, in a predominantly Black populated city, would mean Black working people having a say over how police operate in their communities.

Socialist Transformation

To move beyond reforming the inherently and fundamentally racist system of capitalism and lay the basis for a society free of oppression will require system change, socialist transformation. A unified working-class movement can only be built by fighting racism, sexism and every oppression always and everywhere, including within its own ranks. Working class people fighting through their independent political party, workplace and community organizations must take the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, logistics, finance and other massive corporations into public ownership and use those resources to fund a society which puts the meeting the needs of people and the planet before profits.

Socialist Alternative calls for:

  • Empower CPOC to hire and fire police officers who daily harass and harm Black and Brown people, to set police department policies and budget priorities, negotiate with the FOP, and independently investigate complaints against the police department. Fire any police officers that have a history of affiliations with white supremacist organizations.
  • The CPOC must be democratically elected! We can’t trust the Mayor and City Council to appoint a board truly in our interests.
  • Break from the Democrats and Republicans, and build a working class party! We need CPOC members who are independent of the two parties of big business and represent the multi-racial working class.
  • Mass community meetings to build a movement to end racist policing and the gun violence epidemic. Decisions of CPOC should be accountable to these community gatherings.
  • Fund CPOC long-term by taxing rich corporations such as Comcast and defunding the Philadelphia Police Department by 50%.