The Philadelphia Police Department is slated to have its state accreditation revoked in less than a week, largely because it failed to push back on the city’s “Driving Equality Bill,” according to a manager with the accrediting agency. That bill enacts a department policy restricting officers from making traffic stops to enforce eight sections of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code.
The Pittsburgh Police, due to a similar ordinance, are also at risk of losing their accreditation.
The Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission, or PLEAC, sent a letter to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert in April to notify them that enacting official department policies that attempt to supersede the Pennsylvania vehicle code means their departments “are no longer in full compliance with the state’s Accreditation Program and Standards,” — even if those policies are enacted with the intent of complying with municipal ordinances.
In gaining PLEAC Accreditation, police agencies have to comply with standard 1.1.1, which requires:
“A written directive requiring all law enforcement personnel, prior to performing their sworn duties, to take and subsequently abide with an Oath of Office to support, obey and defend the constitution of the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania and the governmental subdivision and that he/she will discharge the duties of the office with fidelity.
Newly hired law enforcement officers, in a manner prescribed by the agency, shall also acknowledge that they will uphold, obey and enforce the law without consideration to a person’s race, color, sex, religious creed, sexual orientation, age national origin, ancestry, handicap or disability.”
According to James Adams, the PLEAC Accreditation Program Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and Accreditation Manager were sent the April letter advising them that “it came to the attention of the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission (PLEAC) that with the enactment of City Code § 12-1700, Driving Equality Policy, Executive Order 6-21 Philadelphia Police Department is no longer in full compliance with the Accreditation Program and Standards.”
The commission’s standards require the city to have “a written directive requiring all law enforcement personnel to support, obey and defend the constitution of the United States and the Pennsylvania Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania.”
By passing these ordinances, Adams argues, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have attempted to supersede constitutionally legislated state law with municipal ordinances, which puts law enforcement agencies and their officers at odds with their oath of office, by barring them from enforcing eight sections of the state’s vehicle code.
Had Commissioner Outlaw and her staff pushed back or come up with a creative solution to comply with the ordinances, such as allowing officers to make stops but only issue written warnings as opposed to fines, her department’s accreditation would not be in jeopardy.
Instead, Commissioner Outlaw cited the driving equality bill in ordering officers to cease the initiation of traffic stops for over eight sections of the Pennsylvania vehicle code, encompassing multiple traffic and vehicle safety violations with no concern to the safety risk posed to motorists and pedestrians on public highways. Those include driving with lapsed registration and/or inspections, vehicle safety issues, or minor moving violations.
“The PLEAC solicitor has verified that, by law, a first-class city [Philadelphia] or second-class city [Pittsburgh] does not have the authority to supersede state law.” said Adams.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s office did not reply to requests for comment in time for publication.
Sgt. Eric Gripp, a Philadelphia Police spokesman, confirmed the impending revocation of his department’s accreditation, stating in an email to Broad + Liberty: “Accreditation is certification that the Department employs best practices regarding policies and procedures throughout the Department. While the potential loss of accreditation over matters beyond the scope of the Police Department is disheartening, we will maintain the practice of employing best practices. This is in the best interest of the Department and the people we serve.”
When asked if the conflict with state law and the potential violation of accreditation standards was considered when the Driving Equality bill was passed and subsequent PPD policies were issued, Gripp wrote, “The PPD was advised that the Driving Equality Bill did not violate state law. On the contrary, the ordinance does not ban the enforcement of low level traffic offenses, but rather only modifies how these violating offenses are to be enforced.”
Gripp did not specify who advised the PPD that the bill was not in conflict with the state vehicle code, nor how these violating offenses would be enforced without effecting a stop of the violating vehicle.
City Council passed the bill drafted by Councilmember Isaiah Thomas in October 2021 to address what Thomas characterized as racial disparities regarding traffic stops conducted for traffic offenses used for probable cause to conduct searches for more serious crimes. While Thomas characterized this traffic enforcement to single out people of color for increased enforcement, Adams notes that the introduction of his bill was not accompanied by a valid study, nor state legislation to make his proposed violations “secondary stops.” Therefore, if the bill’s goal was to reduce the potential for bias, and to improve relations between the police and the community, why wasn’t it codified by changes to state laws?
Adams, himself a former police chief, acknowledged that officers regularly use discretion when enforcing minor laws or conducting traffic stops, noting that the Philadelphia Police could have set those priorities internally, within the department. However, “to craft an ordinance that prohibits officers from enforcing the law or being able to make lawful stops that can save lives is what puts Philadelphia and Pittsburgh out of compliance,” Adams said.
Adams said the city has not formally responded to PLEAC’s April letter, nor voiced an intent to resolve the issue prior to their July 26 meeting in where the revocation is on the agenda.
Adams further noted Councilmember Thomas’ concerns, saying that PLEAC wanted to review data proving that the Philadelphia police traffic enforcement policies target people of color for enforcement — and more specifically, how the Driving Equality ordinance would address such a problem while preserving public safety.
“How does this bill actually correct the problem of bias as its proponents suggest?” Adams asked. “How does prohibiting officers from enforcing these 8 section of the vehicle code somehow solve the issue of racial disparity?”
What this means for Philadelphians
The Philadelphia Police Department can operate without PLEAC accreditation, but at significant cost and added risk to taxpayers. While PLEAC accreditation has existed since 2001, as a state specific version of the national accreditation standard which has existed since 1973, Philadelphia only gained accreditation during Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, under the command of Commissioner Ramsey.
Independent law enforcement accreditation includes review of department policy, institution of best practices, annual reporting, and an independent external audit conducted every three years. One of the big drivers of this process is the reduction of operational risk and loss control, as comparative statistical reviews conducted over the last three decades show a positive correlation between accreditation and a reduction in liability and worker’s compensation claims.
By being accredited, agencies can improve their policies, training, and transparency to effectively defend themselves against lawsuits, reduce substantiated citizen complaints, equip command staff with a proven management system, and allow agencies an independent — externally vetted change management and self-audit system. In losing their accreditation, Philadelphia exposes itself to costly litigation risks for existing and future civil claims against the police department.
Moreover, in pushing the Philadelphia Police Department to comply with PLEAC standards, Ramsey negotiated a $1,500 bonus for each member of the department to meet accreditation standards. Therefore, Philadelphia’s loss of accreditation now will be tantamount to flushing a $10 million public investment down the toilet.
Furthermore, without an annual PLEAC accreditation audit due, what measures will the Philadelphia Police have to maintain compliance and show it is transparent in opening their policies, procedures, and operations to a valid third-party review?
Had Commissioner Outlaw or Chief Schubert delayed any orders that conflicted with their oaths of office until state lawmakers were consulted, their department’s accreditation would not be at risk. More importantly, had they voiced objections as law enforcement officers, given the record homicides recorded in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh last year on why it may be irresponsible to consider greater restrictions on law enforcement when an all-hands approach is needed, these unlawful ordinances may not have passed in the first place.
To this, Adams said, “With the rise in crime throughout our nation, why would we prohibit our police from using the lawful tools at their disposal to address it?”
Listen to the author of this article, A. Benjamin Mannes, talk about the story with 1210 WPHT’s Dom Giordano: