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Wilkes-Barre police advisory committee says city considering new members

In the future, Wilkes-Barre City Hall could serve as a location for police advisory committee public meetings, says group secretary Rev. Andrew Jerome. First, vacancies on the committee need to be filled.
In the future, Wilkes-Barre City Hall could serve as a location for police advisory committee public meetings, says group secretary Rev. Andrew Jerome. First, vacancies on the committee need to be filled.

After a police advisory committee in Wilkes-Barre removed one of its volunteers last year and lost several others, a member of the group says the city is now taking steps to fill the vacancies.

Pennsylvanians renewed conversations about local police oversight in 2020 after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, sparking national outcry. Although Wilkes-Barre City Council voted down a measure to create the group in July 2020, Mayor George Brown appointed seven residents to a police advisory committee later that year.

The citizens review Wilkes-Barre City Police Department internal investigations and provide feedback on policing strategies. But the panel doesn’t have the authority to make binding decisions within the WBPD, according to Rev. Andrew Jerome, one of two remaining oversight members.

Jerome worked for more than 20 years in law enforcement, corrections and security before becoming lead pastor at Parsons Primitive Methodist Church. Chairwoman Faith Lane is a businesswoman, former educator and youth advocate, as stated on the city’s website.

“We would be willing to meet with anybody personally who had an issue with a [police] incident,” said Jerome, who serves as committee secretary.

“We do want to eventually have public meetings where the community can come and express any concerns… Because in addition to just reviewing complaints, we also want to be that conduit between the police department and the community.”

Before that can happen, the panel needs more mayor-appointed volunteers. Out of seven total seats, there have been five vacancies in the advisory group for close to half a year. Regular meetings haven’t been taking place, but Jerome stays in touch with Lane.

Brown has contacted the volunteers about new prospective committee members, Jerome said. The mayor and Wilkes-Barre Police Chief Joseph Coffay also serve on the committee, but they do not hold voting rights, according to group guidelines. Brown’s office did not return requests for comment and Coffay was not immediately available for an interview.

“[Brown] has a few applications, and he sends them to us and asks us our opinion as well,” Jerome said. “We don’t have the authority to appoint anybody, but he is including us in the process.”

Volunteer members cannot be public officials or municipal employees, and they should represent the diverse cultural backgrounds that exist in Wilkes-Barre, per committee guidelines. One of the group’s goals is “to improve transparency and accessibility to public information” about the WBPD, though Jerome confirmed the group has yet to issue a public report.

The WBPD has presented the committee with two complaints against the law enforcement agency since 2020. Both times, those who filed complaints with the department also contacted the committee to ensure their concerns were heard, Jerome said.

He added that one of those complaints was filed by a former oversight committee member, who was later asked to step down from the group. Jerome said that the member's allegations against a WBPD officer were deemed not credible by the committee and presented a conflict of interest with her oversight role.

In nearby Scranton, Mayor Paige Cognetti said funding for some type of police oversight group has been set aside in the city’s budget each year since 2021.

“We have been thinking about that for a long time,” Cognetti said. “We have not stood one up at this time, but we’re still looking at it. And we’re looking for examples of where it works and what might be the right fit here.”

Insights from Philly

Wilkes-Barre modeled aspects of its advisory committee on the police supervisory agency in Philadelphia, according to Jerome.

Anthony Erace is the interim executive director at Philadelphia’s Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) which meets with the public each month and posts meeting minutes and agendas online. He said it’s important that oversight groups are credible to the community and in the eyes of local cops and the unions that represent them.

“It needs to be legitimate both to the residents and to police officers,” Erace said. “The point of oversight is not to defeat any police department. It’s to really enhance and improve any police department.”

Erace said the ways municipalities structure those supervisory groups can make a big difference in how much strength they have. A national review of oversight groups breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of each model.

Some citizen oversight boards in the U.S. have little authority, simply reviewing police internal investigations. Others are organized as commissions that have auditing power, conducting their own investigations into local police departments.

“[An oversight group] is only as good as the administration behind it,” Erace said, “because it has no backing unless whomever is the mayor decides to enforce it.”

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.