With Philadelphia politics lurching to the left in recent years, and City Council now more racially diverse than ever before, supporters of the protests that followed George Floyd’s death are hoping the city will follow the lead of Camden and Minneapolis in attempting to disband or defund the police department.
“For some people, it’s a scary conversation, but I want to stress that we need to be bold about how we change and how we restructure policing, and what we replace policing with,” Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said. “I am inspired by Minneapolis, and I hope that our city, too, takes a hold of this moment and can be on the right side of history.”
There is no clear agreement on what is meant by “defunding” or dismantling the police, but activists have called for changes ranging from disbanding existing departments in order to build new ones from scratch to eliminating policing.
Camden in 2013 shut down its police department in favor of a county-operated force that many say has led to reduced crime and improved community relations. A majority of the Minneapolis City Council on Sunday committed to disbanding the department, although they have not offered details on what public safety and law enforcement will look like if the plan becomes reality.
Completely dismantling the department in Philadelphia, however, remains a long shot. Although some support the concept, no councilmember is known to be drafting legislation on it at the moment, and given Mayor Jim Kenney’s opposition to the idea, any member who did move forward with a bill might need a supermajority to override a potential mayoral veto.
Calls to decrease police funding also reverberated across the Delaware River on Tuesday, with Gov. Phil Murphy saying he did not support defunding police but believed budget priorities should include education, health care, and other “things we do to lift our communities up.”
“I recognize the passion around this right now, around the notion of defunding police,” said Murphy, a Democrat. “To me, it’s, 'What’s the ultimate end state? What are we trying to get to?’ I think we are trying to get to law enforcement and community relations that are defined by words like transparency and accountability and trust.”
Kenney on Tuesday released a plan to reform the Police Department and committed to working with Council to scrap an increase in the department’s budget in the next fiscal year that he had proposed before the George Floyd protests.
Kenney’s comments indicate he now supports freezing city General Fund spending on the department at the current level of $748.6 million, rather than increasing it to $760.3 million as he proposed in May. Council originally appropriated $741.2 million for the department this year, but recent cost overruns have driven up its spending.
“I don’t think ‘defund the police’ means zero out the police budget and disband the force,” Kenney said during a virtual news conference Tuesday. “Some people do believe that, and are pushing that agenda. We think we can police better, and make sure that we put the resources into departments that can affect change and make the situations in our neighborhoods better.”
A more feasible path for the priorities local activists have pushed will likely involve redirecting some money from the department’s budget to social programs, and adopting reforms in the way the city handles police misconduct.
“I wouldn’t support abolishing the department because obviously we still have an issue when you talk about homicides here in the city of Philadelphia, we still have an issue when it comes to shootings,” Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, vice chair of the Public Safety Committee, said. “Can you defund it totally? No, you can’t, but obviously you have to have a balance when you talk about public safety.”
Even as Kenney commits to reforms and budget changes, his administration is likely to face tough questions from councilmembers during a police budget hearing Wednesday morning.
The makeup of Philadelphia’s Council, which took office in January, and the political climate created by the protests over Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer have opened the door for a more far-reaching police reform agenda than the city has ever seen. A bloc of consistently progressive members has emerged on the historically center-left Council, with others joining them on certain issues. Council has 13 nonwhite members, including 10 African Americans.
Gauthier and fellow progressive Councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks would likely be on the front lines if there is a serious push to eliminate or defund the Police Department.
“We don’t have to keep the same systems over and over,” Gym posted on Twitter Sunday. “Minneapolis Council showing how transformative change can happen.”
Brooks said she would also be supportive of disbanding the department, saying racism is so ingrained in the current system of policing that she doubts any amount of reform or training could eliminate it.
“You can’t professional-develop people out of being racist,” she said. “We need to envision a system that is working to dismantle that, to dismantle anti-blackness, and find a way to create safety for everyone.”
Passing a bill to disband Philadelphia’s police force would require nine votes, and possibly 12 if Kenney were to veto the legislation. Council President Darrell L. Clarke has kept mum on the prospect of defunding or eliminating the department, saying through a spokesperson that he is “closely watching the actions of other cities around the country on police reforms.”
Clarke was one of 14 members who on Monday sent Kenney a letter, authored by Johnson, laying out 15 specific reforms for how the department handles officer misconduct and use of force. Among them: an early warning system that tracks indicators of officers likely to engage in misconduct; a prohibition on police sitting or kneeling on subjects’ neck, face, or head; and a “fully resourced, independent police oversight.”
Councilmember Allan Domb, who signed the letter sent Monday, said he would not support an effort to eliminate or entirely defund the police. Domb said change is needed, but noted that Kenney in recent years has increased spending across the board and not just for police; the proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes $500 million more in spending than four years ago.
“The flavor of the day right now is to blame police,” Domb said. “I don’t think police are perfect, but I think in general they do a very good job.”
Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said he commends “Minneapolis for this bold experiment, and will be watching closely to see if it makes sense for Philly in the future,” and fellow freshman Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson also indicated that she would be open to an approach similar to Camden’s, saying that “the time is now for much-needed reforms.”
“Camden has been very successful in reducing violence, especially murder, violent crime, non-fatal shootings, assaults, and property crimes,” she said in a statement Monday. “Their focus on social services, employment, and education has been an important part of that work.”