Local pastor awaits approval to citizen commission

If confirmed, Elder Melanie DeBouse will help investigate police misconduct in Philadelphia.

Elder Melanie DeBouse, a 1986 education alumna and co-director of POWER Live Free, stands inside the Children’s Mission in North Philadelphia on March 8. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

In 1969, Elder Melanie DeBouse would walk by Evangel Chapel, located just around the corner from her childhood home in North Philadelphia, on her way to the playground. 

Once DeBouse’s family became involved with the Evangel Chapel’s ministry, DeBouse learned that she could use the Bible as a mechanism for hope amid racial and economic discrimination.

“Have faith in the society that does not always offer people of color, the same kind of hope and the same kind of positive outlook on life that some have a tendency to get,” DeBouse said. 

Now, DeBouse, a 1986 education alumna, awaits City Council’s confirmation of her appointment to Philadelphia’s Citizens Police Oversight Commission and is committed to bringing her deep-seated desire for justice and her connection with the community to the table. 

The commission, officially announced in September 2021 and led by Councilmember Curtis Jones, was created to increase police accountability and transparency in the city. 

Despite moving around throughout her life to places like North Carolina, DeBouse was drawn back to community service in Philadelphia to address poverty, hunger and education gaps in the city. 

“I keep my finger on the pulse of the community and I can’t emphasize enough that I am not anti-police, I am pro-justice,” DeBouse said. “I am anti-corruption and I have a real problem with the reality that our police are not able or not willing to police themselves.” 

Out of 320 applicants, the city’s selection panel chose DeBouse and eight other individuals. If confirmed to the commission, DeBouse will help investigate and oversee conduct and policies in the Philadelphia Police Department. 

If approved, one of DeBouse’s main goals would be to ensure citizens who are impacted by police misconduct get “their day in court,” by ensuring officers, who engage in misconduct are held responsible.

“Any citizen who has an egregious act railed against him or her will know that there is a protection and nobody, even our police officers, is above the law,” DeBouse said.

The Philadelphia Police Department did not deliver significant consequences to officers who committed misconduct in 99.5 percent of situations between 2015 and 2020, NBC10 reported.

Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER Interfaith, met DeBouse at least 12 years ago because his congregation, Living Water United Church of Christ, was two blocks down the street from DeBouse’s. At POWER, they have worked together on a variety of issues including stop-and-frisk-policies in Philadelphia. 

“She’s extremely honest about both sides of the various issues,” Royster said. “So she’ll be fair-minded but she’s also going to advocate and hold the police department to a high standard.” 

DeBouse has worked on police and criminal justice reform with Live Free for more than five years. Since then, Live Free advocated for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to veto the 2016 House Bill 1538 that would have made it a felony to release the name of a police officer involved in a killing of a civilian. 

The campaign also advocated for City Council to pass a resolution to lessen reliance on cash bail, according to the campaign’s website.

“That’s her number one quality, passionate about the work, passionate about her community, about injustice and fighting injustice,” said Gayle Lacks, the co-chair of Live Free.

Before arriving at POWER, DeBouse lived and worked as a teacher and community activist in North Carolina, seeking to close educational achievement gaps amongst marginalized students by starting a summer education camp that helped them with homework. 

Upon returning to Philadelphia, DeBouse has continued organizing camps through Children’s Mission and helps cook about 40 to 60 pounds of food per household per week for 300 to 400 local residents. 

Going forward, DeBouse hopes that the commission will allow individuals impacted by police misconduct to have a voice and be heard.

“My hope is that in the not too distant future, the citizens of Philadelphia will discover that if an egregious act is performed against them, they can file a complaint, that information will be heard,” DeBouse said.

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