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When she assumes office in January 2020, Rochelle Bilal will be the first woman to lead the Sheriff's Office in Philadelphia history. Photo: Emily Neil/AL DÍA News.
When she assumes office in January 2020, Rochelle Bilal will be the first woman to lead the Sheriff's Office in Philadelphia history. Photo: Emily Neil/AL DÍA News.

Rochelle Bilal: How the soon-to-be first woman sheriff in Philadelphia history wants to change the Sheriff’s Office

The Democratic nominee for sheriff visited AL DÍA on September 12 to talk about her journey to running for the spot and what she’ll do to change the office.

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During the Democratic primary for Philadelphia Sheriff, Rochelle Bilal remembers many of her critics calling her “unelectable." 

In the face of such criticism, Bilal leaned on the words of her late mother to overcome it. 

“Be true to yourself, follow your dreams and your passion, and don’t let anybody tell you what you can not do,” recalled Bilal during her September 12 visit to AL DÍA.

Humble beginnings

For someone who grew up on Lawrence and Cumberland streets in “deep North Philly,” the message and support from her mother is what kept her and her siblings on track.

Bilal’s father had left the family before she was born, leaving her mother — a part-time cook — to raise her and her six brothers and sisters alone. 

The neighborhood struggled with poverty, but Bilal says members of the community often shared things with one another in times of little food or other resources. The shared burden covered up much of the hardship. 

“Nobody really knew we were poor down there because we all were,” said Bilal.

Another aspect she experienced growing up in North Philly during the late 60s and 70s was the tense relationship between the police department and the black community. 

“We didn’t trust police because we saw what police did,” said Bilal.

As a young black woman, she saw the blatant police abuse of black men, and often joined the chorus of ridicule the officers faced when patrolling her neighborhood.

It wasn’t until the Guardian Civic League came around that the message from the police department towards the neighborhood changed. The few black officers that were members stayed persistent in proliferating the change of tone despite continued abuse from the community.

“If you want to see the change, you have to be in this institute to make the change,” Bilal remembered them saying.

While not initially taken with the message, she eventually joined the police department after two of her friends did so, leaving a job at the post office.

For 27 years Bilal remained on the force, and developed a reputation for confronting the department’s culture of discrimination head on in the vein of her mother’s message. 

“I was not going to stand for any mistreatment of anyone, including me,” said Bilal.

In addition to climbing to the helm of the Guardian Civic League, Bilal also helped shut down a forum for racist cops run by a Philly police sergeant in 2009 and defended black cops accused of anti-white bias for calling out unethical behavior. 

“There can be no fear in that,” said Bilal. “You have to be able to stand up for what’s right, regardless of who it’s against.”

It was this approach to work that led Bilal, after 27 years, to run for Sheriff. 

A need for change

As president of the Guardian Civic League, Bilal heard feedback from many members who worked in the Sheriff Department about its culture. The toxic, corrupt environment she heard about made the department seemingly unable to effectively carry out its duties to the communities it served.

“I decided to run because change is necessary,” said Bilal.

At the beginning, it looked like the incumbent, Jewell Williams, would coast to another victory with the Democratic Party’s backing. But new allegations of sexual harassment surfaced in the middle of the campaign and the establishment’s support for Williams vanished, breaking the race wide open right before the election.  

In the end, Bilal upset Williams in a close race, making a splash in a usually quiet office.

As for the relatively unknown Sheriff’s Office, Bilal wants to transform its public perception by better serving the people subject to its services.

Educating the public

While running, she said most voters she encountered didn’t know who the Sheriff was and others didn’t know what the department did.

“And the few that did know, they only knew bad things about the Sheriff’s Office,” said Bilal. “We want to change that.”

Her plan starts by educating more in Philly’s communities about the duties of the Sheriff’s Office.

For the record, the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office oversees the security of the city’s courthouses and manages all the foreclosures of its tax delinquent properties. The latter role is the focus for most of the public’s ire.

“Most people all they know is that the Sheriff will take your home and kick you out of your apartment,” said Bilal.

Bilal is out to change that narrative. 

Keeping families in their homes

For one, she wants to invest more money in advertising services that support families and individuals struggling to afford housing. 

One example Bilal cited is Community Legal Services — a longtime program founded by the Philadelphia Bar Association that aids low-income citizens with a multitude of issues from housing and healthcare to language access and employment. 

The organization has existed since 1966, but it is often never mentioned or the last thing referred to families when dealing with a Sheriff’s sale. 

“When you go through that process, the one thing you see is: ‘My home is being taken,’” she said. “You don’t read the bottom line of any paperwork because now you’re upset.”

Under Bilal’s guidance, the office will no longer be seen as one that kicks people from their homes, but one that also saves them from that fate. 

“We can do a better job on helping people stay in their homes than just going around and taking people’s homes,” said Bilal.

As part of that mission, she has plans to develop a nonprofit called “Keeping Families in Their Homes” to do just that. 

The organization will work predominantly with those facing tangled titles — or any problem relating the legal ownership of real estate in the city. 

Bilal said the nonprofit will raise funds for any paperwork fees — such as getting a new name signed on a property’s deed. The organization will also work to create a network between it and other aid services for families struggling to afford rent. 

“We have to be more innovative and we have to be more compassionate about families who are homeless, families’ members, or people in this city dealing with the poverty issue,” said Bilal.

Changing a culture

In terms of the toxic work environment, her experience at the Guardian Civic League and as a maverick in the police department have prepared her well to deal with whatever internal strife is left by her predecessors.

Her message to current employees was simple:

“If there’s an issue that you need to speak out against, we need to be able to listen,” said Bilal. “We just want people to come to work, do their job and then they can go home, and not worry about whether supervisors are out to get you.

She said the previous environment not only affected the workers, but those they serve, especially in the courtrooms, where private internal conflicts often overflow into the public.

“You’re coming in there and you’re dealing with trauma,” said Bilal.

Her new approach will encourage more recognition of trauma from members of the office, so they can be “gentler, kinder” people to those experiencing the court system.

“We want to be able to treat people coming in there like customer service,” said Bilal. “How can we help you?”

A trailblazer

But before Bilal enacts any change, she must go through the general election in November. 

However, she is running unopposed and when she assumes office in January, she will be the first woman in Philadelphia history to be Sheriff. 

It’s something Bilal told AL DÍA she’s finally realizing the importance of.

“It’s another position that the glass ceiling has been broken,” she said. “Now other women can aspire to move up and take on these positions.”

Bilal’s new found status as a role model is something she is happy to own, and reaffirms her commitment to making sure other women of all ages know they can do the same.

“When I leave, then hopefully I leave it to the next woman,” she said.

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