Rochelle Bilal Will Likely Become First Black Female Sheriff in Philadelphia

Rochelle Bilal, a former policewoman and civic leader, defeated two-term Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams by more than 20,000 votes in the Democratic primary on May 21. She will become the first elected Black female sheriff in the 181-year history of the office.

Bilal defeated two sheriff’s deputies who were vying for the office, according to The Philadelphia Citizen. Bilal is a 27-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, who worked in the sex crimes and drug trafficking units. She later became public safety officer for Colwyn Township, where she managed the police and fire departments. Bilal is president of the Guardian Civic League, a Black police advocacy group and secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Bilal, 61, has never run for public office before; she ran on a platform of restoring integrity and community confidence in the office. Williams, an embattled sheriff, faced three allegations of sexual harassment. Two cases were settled at taxpayer’s expense and one case is still pending, though Williams vehemently denies all of the accusations. Despite raising less money than the incumbent, Bilal generated significant endorsements and community support. Bilal isn’t a stranger to controversy. She retired from the police department in 2013 during an investigation into a second job she had with Colwyn Borough, reported. She was found not guilty of "double dipping" and received a wrongful termination settlement from Colwyn.

The sheriff’s office is an independently elected office that is responsible for courthouse security, prisoner transport, and the management of foreclosed and tax-delinquent properties. It also handles evictions. Under Williams, the duties of the office expanded to include serving warrants, guarding City Council and the new family courthouse. The office has a $26 million budget and more than 400 employees.

Bilal will not face a Republican challenger in the November general election and will assume office in January unless an independent qualifies for the ballot. She pledges to have a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment.

"In my administration, we are not going to have that," Bilal told NBC Philadelphia in an April 2019 interview. "I have no tolerance for harassment, against women or men."

Journalist Shaun King praised Bilal and her efforts to transform Philadelphia, noting, "We need Rochelle Bilals all over the country. We need women like her — whose values are rock solid, who won’t compromise — to come in and change these systems from the inside out. "

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.