A History Untold: The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office Under Sheriff Rochelle Bilal

A History Untold: The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office Under Sheriff Rochelle Bilal

A History Untold:The Philadelphia Sheriff’s OfficeUnder Sheriff Rochelle Bilal

On January 6, 2020, I was sworn into the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office promising change to the residents of Philadelphia. A change in leadership, executive and administrative management, and operational function.

Though reporters and the editorial staff from The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News (owned and operated by the Philadelphia Media Network) and a few other Philadelphia media sources have attempted to tarnish the Sheriff’s Office’s and my reputation, we are still prevailing and building an Office, through a series of effective and efficient improvements, that the residents of Philadelphia can be proud of and confident in.

To begin, when I first entered the Office in 2020, my goal was, and still is, transparency and rebuilding trust between the Sheriff’s Office and the community. To accomplish these goals, I first conducted a thorough assessment of the previous and current state of the Sheriff’s Office. Second, I began to develop a culture within the Office to go above and beyond when meeting the needs of this City and County. I believe that a leader is effective when they first become knowledgeable of the people they are charged with leading and the systems that are in place, before establishing changes.

After assessment, I began to put people, policies, and procedures in place to make the necessary changes to better the Office. Below is a brief outline of the many accomplishments the Sheriff’s Office has achieved, and we do not plan to stop here:

Creation of an Undersheriff Unit

Before my administration, there was only one attorney at the Sheriff’s Office, the Undersheriff. After examining the significant function, the Office has as the arm of the court, I recognized the need to have a legal team who can dissect issues and make sure the Office is compliant with its many statutorily driven responsibilities. Now, under the leadership of my Undersheriff, Tariq K. El-Shabazz, Esq., I have employed two additional attorneys, Shyann Gales-Poland, Esq. and LaVanda K. Harris, Esq., to handle matters concerning real estate, contracts, right to know requests, onboarding of new contractors, complex accounting matters, communications with the City Law Department and other legal matters that arise across Units within the Sheriff’s Office.

Improvements in the Real Estate Process

The Real Estate Division, responsible for conducting Sheriff’s Sales of real property, is one of the largest Units within the Sheriff’s Office. Some of the challenges this Unit faced before my administration were mismanagement of funds, insufficient policies, bidder intimidation, unequal bidder opportunity, lack of competitive bidding, etc. Understanding how impactful this Unit is, I wanted to ensure a level of transparency that was not upheld in previous administrations.

Now, the Sheriff’s Sale process is conducted completely online through Bid4Assets, which alleviates the challenges listed above. This system allows us to take full control of the Sheriff’s Sale process and create a competitive bidding experience that results in homeowners receiving more excess proceeds than ever before.
To illustrate, the total amount of excess proceeds returned to homeowners during the 2015-2019 administration was $3,715,815.66. The total amount of excess proceeds during my administration in a brief period of three years (2020-2023), has more than doubled to $8,312,647.28.

Further, the online sale process allows our Office to stay or postpone a property, before, during, or after a sale, with no risks to the overall sale process. We have also made tremendous changes regarding advertising by reducing the cost per case by 70%.

Lastly, our Office has taken on the escheatment process for unclaimed excess proceeds. Under a Memorandum of Understanding between the City and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (that expired in 2016), the City Law Department and Finance were primarily responsible for the escheatment of unclaimed funds for our Office. The MOU was a result of previous administrations not following the Commonwealth’s statutory guidelines for the escheatment of unclaimed funds. To date, we have taken back control and timely conducted the escheatment process, in-house, for 2023 and 2024.

Establishing Effective Accounting Principals

/p>I took Office recognizing that there were discrepancies in the management of funds. With an eye toward transparency, I immediately met with the Accounting Unit to (1) research the source of all the funds, (2) delegate the funds to properly labeled accounts, and (3) ensure that the accounting practices the Office now uses conforms to City Finance requirements.

Advancements in the Warrant Unit & Civil Enforcement Division

The Sheriff’s Office understands the issues surrounding crime in Philadelphia and is adamant about being an active participant in making Philadelphia safer. Currently, we have members of our Warrant Unit who participate in task forces across all law enforcement agencies (Philadelphia Police Department (“PPD”), Federal Bureau of Investigations, Attorney General, Bureau for Narcotics and Investigations (BNI), etc.).

Further, in January 2024, we introduced the Fugitive Warrant Unit Priority List on our website, phillysheriff.com, to provide information to the public about individuals who are actively on our High-Priority List. This online resource is user-friendly and allows members of the community to submit anonymous tips for wanted individuals in Philadelphia. Though we work closely with the District Attorney’s Office to apprehend these individuals, we recognize the need for public assistance.

Lastly, our Civil Enforcement Division is no stranger to going above and beyond. For example, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and an increase in domestic violence occurred, the Civil Division stepped in to assist PPD with serving Protection from Abuse Orders (“PFAs”). Though this was a temporary emergency response to the influx in PFAs cases, the assistance became permanent due to the positive outcome. As a result, we have an ongoing relationship with PPD, Women Against Abuse, Pennsylvania Courts, and other stakeholders to serve PFAs and effectively comply with Act 79 requirements. Another example is the Civil Enforcement Unit’s ability to conduct evictions without incident. Considering the landlord-tenant incidents that led to serious bodily harm, our Office (including the Captain and Lieutenant of Civil Enforcement) advocated with local and State Representatives to show our Office’s willingness to take on more cases. Ultimately this would better ensure the safety of all stakeholders who are involved in the eviction process.

Organization of the Armory

On my first day in the Office, I was horrified by the state of the armory. Firearms were stored in trash cans, in the corner, improperly tagged and there were no security measures or ways of ensuring chain of custody. In September of 2023, my Office held a press conference and provided a thorough explanation (with Exhibits) of my findings and the measures I took to correct them. (Full explanations can be found here: Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office Holds Press Conference Refuting Inaccurate City Controller’s Report Released on September 20, 2023 – Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office (phillysheriff.com)). Our Office is currently taking the same measures demonstrated in our press conference to ensure the armory remains organized and secure.

Innovations in Technology

Because of all the operational functions of the Office, I knew that technology would be instrumental in the workflow. Therefore, I developed an IT team that could: (1) implement and support new technology, (2) build custom reports, and (3) foster relationships with other technological partners to streamline these processes.

One of the Office’s biggest projects is implementing the customized Tyler Technologies Civil Serve system. This system will allow us to be more efficient in the real estate/sheriff sale and civil process, warrant service, and communications across Units and municipal partners.

Community Events and Community Outreach

The Office has made significant improvements in community engagement. Along with our partners, we have hosted over one hundred events a year, providing food to more than 30,000 families.

We’ve created a Constituent Services Unit that allows a streamlined system for routing and prioritizing incoming inquiries resulting in a 40 -50 % increase in response time. The Unit remains successful in providing information about federal, state, and local resources to help individuals save their homes before evictions or foreclosures. In addition to providing those resources, the Unit also provides helpful information (mental health, drug addiction, and home placements) to assist those individuals when unfortunate circumstances occur.

The Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office announced the Autism Decal Initiative in April 2023 to alert emergency responders about a person who has autism. The decals are handed out at no cost in the community and can be placed on the rear window of a vehicle or the front door of a home.

In March 2024, we launched a podcast called, the Sheriff’s Perspective, which airs on WURD radio every third Saturday of the month. The purpose of the podcast is to keep the community informed about Sheriff’s Office events and educate them on the Sheriff’s Office’s primary functions and the effect it has on the community. The first episode is available to replay on our YouTube page.

The Next Four Years

Over the next four years, our Office will continue to operate by the following mission:

The Sheriff’s Office is committed to service, procedural justice, and the sanctity of human life. Our duties encompass protecting the lives, property, and rights of all people within a framework of service, uncompromising integrity, fiscal responsibility, professionalism, vigilance, and bias-free conduct. We accomplish this by working as a team, putting our egos and territorial pride aside for the betterment of this mission.

I will continue to hold integrity and trust high amongst my administration with an eye towards being a progressive, community-oriented, and shining example of what a Sheriff should be.

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