By Austin Nolen
The fight between the City of Philadelphia and the Fraternal Order of Police over the release of the names of officers who shoot civilians continued yesterday in a small hearing room in Harrisburg.
The case, presided over by Hearing Examiner John Pozniak of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, stems from the decision of the City to implement changes recommended by the Department of Justice in their police use of force policies.
One of the changes implemented in 2015 was a policy to release of the names of officers who fire their weapons at civilians. Other changes included a greater role for the Police Advisory Commission in shooting investigations and clearer diagrams on the proper escalation of force.
City officials claimed that these policy changes were within their legal rights to manage and set overall policy for government agencies. The FOP, on the other hand, claimed that the release of officer names was a term or condition of employment, because it impacts officer safety.
Pennsylvania law requires police departments to bargain with unions over terms and conditions of employment, and the FOP filed unfair labor practice charges with the PLRB seeking to force the City to the negotiating table.
Though the central issue that the PLRB will resolve is whether the new use of force policies are subject to collective bargaining, both sides also defended their stances on the underlying policy issues.
When Police Commissioner Richard Ross took the stand, he defended his ability to set these policies by explaining his view of the negative consequences the Department would face without them.
“You have to have the opportunity to implement policies that you feel will keep officers safe, the public safe and engender trust,” he said. “Without that, you’re going to have a problem you can’t control. When things go awry, they’re coming to me.”
Ross defended the decision to release officer names by claiming that it builds community trust, and “without community trust, you subject yourself to volatile situations that don’t have to happen.”
FOP attorney Stephen Holroyd, however, tried to show that the Department was excessively under the influence of protest groups and unconcerned with officer safety.
When Ross claimed that he wouldn’t allow unelected groups such as the FOP to dictate policy, Holroyd asked Ross whether he knew how Black Lives Matter’s leaders were elected, implying that the Commissioner was subject to their whims.
FOP vice president John McGrody also took the stand, providing his account of a protest at the home of former Philadelphia Police Officer Ryan Pownall on August 24th, 2017.
Pownall fatally shot a man named David Jones in the back after a car chase and his name was released to the public under the new police policy.
Pownall was fired in September when Ross determined that Jones had dropped his firearm and was running away when the officer fired. A criminal investigation by the state Attorney General is ongoing.
During the hearing, Ross described the actions of the small group of protesters who showed up at Pownall’s home after the release of his name as “ridiculous,” and said that he doesn’t “believe that you have a First Amendment right to protest in front of someone’s home,” but denied that Pownall was threatened during the protest
He also described the Department’s efforts to protect officers whose names are released, which include social media monitoring and stationing officers at the homes of officers who request protection.
McGrody, in his testimony, painted a darker picture of the protest than Ross, stating that “the four main antagonists used disgusting, horrible language that no one should ever hear.”
He also claimed that the protesters “took over the block and terrorized it” and that officers on scene were ordered not to make arrests despite probable cause for charges of disorderly conduct, riot and obstructing public highways.
McGrody also alleged that Pownall had received threats after the protest occurred, but the City’s attorney, Cara Leheny, told Hearing Examiner Pozniak that McGrody’s claims about the threats were not credible.
McGrody, Leheny said, had not mentioned these threats in court during an FOP attempt to obtain a judge’s injunction against the release of officer names, even though the hearing in that case came a month after the protests.
The next step in the case is for both sides to file briefs with Pozniak. His eventual decision can then be appealed by either party to the members of the PLRB and then to court.