Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday promised his administration will continue modernizing and reforming the Police Department, saying that even while the city faces its highest murder rate in generations, “I pledge to hold our government accountable to this work.”
As his administration detailed police policy changes over the last year, Kenney said improving accountability and changing the department’s culture shouldn’t be conflated with — and won’t be hindered by — the unrelenting gun violence that has the city preparing for what could be its deadliest summer ever.
“It’s a false equivalent,” he said during a news conference outside City Hall, rejecting efforts to tie the soaring violent crime to police reform.
A report the administration released Tuesday was the result of work by the year-old Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation Steering Committee, which examined practices and guided changes across city government related to public safety, economic policy, and city services. The committee was formed in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
Among the changes officials highlighted were a ban on choke holds, a new police oversight structure, more transparency around citizen complaints against police, and increased collaboration between officers and behavioral health specialists. Some police reforms remain a work in progress, hampered either by bureaucracy or legal restrictions.
Kenney said the committee will continue to convene at least through his term, which ends after 2023.
Governments across the country pledged over the past year to reimagine the role of police after millions of protesters demanded change. But some cities have changed course, now aiming to increase police presence as gun violence across the country has skyrocketed.
A recent Washington Post analysis found that 2020 was the deadliest year for gun violence in decades, and 2021 is on track to be worse. In Philadelphia so far this year, 247 people have been slain, more than in all of 2013.
Kenney said he was in a group chat Monday with mayors from 25 cities, all of whom were “grappling with this problem.” He blamed the ease with which people can obtain illegal guns, as well as a year of record legal gun sales. He called on the federal government to strengthen gun-safety measures, saying “we need some national help on this.”
Some academics have posited that violent crime rates have risen in part because of the social upheaval caused by the pandemic, and also because police morale may have dwindled amid anti-brutality protests.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw acknowledged “morale has been low” across the 6,500-member force and that “there are a lot of people that have signed up to retire.”
She said one of her major focuses in the coming year, in addition to accountability, is employee well-being.
“We don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “Now, granted, we get in our own way. There’s a lot that we’ve done to contribute to that. But there’s a large percentage [of police] that want to do the right thing, and they do do the right thing.”