Five years after the city’s Police Advisory Commission issued a series of recommendations to the Philadelphia Police Department arising from the Nizah Morris homicide, the department still hasn’t implemented any of them.
The PAC is a city-funded watchdog agency that investigates complaints of police misconduct and recommends policy changes when deemed necessary. It has 13 commissioners, six staffers and an annual budget of about $750,000.
Morris was a trans woman of color who was found with a fatal head injury shortly after receiving a Center City “courtesy ride” from police. The December 2002 homicide remains unsolved. The advocates continue to call for state and federal probes.
In 2003, the police department stated that it had misplaced its entire Morris homicide file. Eight years later, some of those records were located in the city Archives Unit. But many records remain missing, including a complete set of 911 recordings relating to the incident.
Police officers who handled the incident communicated via cell phone, making it even more difficult for investigators to reconstruct their movements. On-duty officers typically communicate via a police-radio system. A recording of their conversations is preserved for future review, if necessary.
The PAC’s 2013 report on the Morris incident concluded that a joint investigation conducted by police and Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office was “appalling.”
The report contains four recommendations to the police department, including a directive regulating courtesy rides; a directive regulating the use of private cell phones by on-duty police officers; and a revised “hospital-cases” directive stating that an officer following up on a 911 call for medical assistance shouldn’t unilaterally cancel medics en route to assess the situation.
A police-department spokesperson had no comment on the lack of implementation of the PAC’s Morris recommendations other than to provide a link to Philadelphia police directives posted online.
A review of the online directives — along with information gathered from other sources — reveals that none of the four PAC recommendations has been implemented. However, LGBT-bias training for cadets increased in May 2017 from one hour to two hours.
The fourth PAC recommendation calls for mandatory 12-hour LGBT-bias training for police recruits and existing police personnel. Currently, mandatory LGBT-bias training is limited to police cadets who must attend a two-hour LGBT training after they graduate from the Police Academy. The PPD currently has 6,000 uniformed officers.
In a July 2013 letter to PAC, the police department said it would implement the first three recommendations “as soon as practical.” In the letter, the department stated it couldn’t implement PAC’s enhanced-training recommendations without involvement from the state Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission because “mandatory recruit training … is beyond the scope and authority of the Philadelphia Police Department.”
But last week, a MPOETC spokesperson told PGN the PPD could implement additional LGBT-bias training for recruits and existing personnel without involvement from MPOETC.
Local police departments “may add training or mandate training where needed,” said Cpl. Adam Reed in an April 20 email.
Hans Menos, PAC executive director, said the commission will reach out to the police department regarding implementation of the Morris recommendations. “[We] generally agree that there is some lack of movement on our recommendations,” Menos said in an April 19 email.
“We are not prepared to call them a failure but do wish to find out more about the progress that we may not be able to appreciate — and to understand how we can move forward on the recommendations we have made.”
Sarah Yeung, chair of PAC’s policy and practices committee, said the body is reviewing the matter.
“We are reviewing the extent of the implementation of [the four recommendations],” Yeung said, in an April 23 email. “We will follow up on the implementation of the PAC recommendations that [the Philadelphia Police Department] accepted.”
In her email, Yeung also said the committee is developing a process to update the public about implementation of the Morris recommendations, along with other suggestions made to the police department.
Chuck Volz, a former PAC commissioner who was instrumental in formulating the four Morris recommendations to police, told PGN they should have been promptly implemented.
“How hard is it to make a 12-hour LGBT training part of police recruits’ curriculum and a requirement for in-service training of veteran officers?” Volz said. “In this day and age, you’d think they’d be glad to do it. I just don’t see the political will on the part of the Kenney administration.”
Volz added: “Everything else we recommended was logical and rational. We suggested things that should have existed and should have been implemented immediately. Failure to do so not only shows a lack of respect for the memory of Nizah Morris — it really is a lack of respect for the concept of citizen review of the police department.”
Volz expressed doubt that Philadelphia police would implement the recommendations unless Mayor Jim Kenney directs it to do so.
“The police are really a paramilitary organization. They won’t implement these kinds of things. It falls on the shoulders of the Kenney administration to do something. And the administration doesn’t appear to want to do it.”
A spokesperson for Kenney had no comment for this story.
Julie Chovanes, a Philadelphia-based trans attorney, echoed Volz’s concerns about the lack of implementation of PAC’s recommendations.
“As counsel for the Justice for Nizah Committee and as a trans woman, I’d like to have seen more progress made regarding the recommendations contained in the PAC’s Morris report” Chovanes said, in an April 22 email.
“I’d also like to see more progress on the issue of transparency that we keep asking for. It’s been 15 years since Nizah’s death. We’ve waited long enough.”