The heavy-handed response to this year’s protests against police brutality in Philadelphia will take center stage as City Council returns to session this month, setting up a longer fight over how to answer protesters’ calls to defund the Police Department.
Unlike probes being conducted by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, Council’s review of the widely criticized displays of police force during the demonstrations — including the teargassing of protesters on I-676 and on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia — will be a more public vetting.
“Policies matter, budgets matter, but the thing that really changes struggling and dysfunctional institutions is a seismic change in the public environment,” said Councilmember Helen Gym, who authored a resolution calling for hearings on the incidents, which will take place in September and October. “It’s really important to hear directly from individuals impacted from use of force to understand why those things need to change.”
The hearings will come during Council’s fall session, which begins Thursday with the first full meeting since the end of June. Council is reconvening with ambitious plans to address policing, the coronavirus pandemic, and its resulting economic crisis and poverty. But lawmakers will be working within a tight budget and continuing to meet virtually rather than in person.
For Gym and fellow progressive Councilmembers Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier, this fall’s hearings are just the beginning. The trio said they will push for a budget next year that would reimagine public safety in Philadelphia by decreasing the Police Department budget to add funding for neighborhood-based violence-intervention programs.
The spring session ended with a last-minute budget deal that canceled a planned funding increase for the Police Department and moved $14 million for crossing guards and traffic enforcement to another department. Kenney and some on Council said the changes, negotiated as protests roiled the city in June, came in response to activists’ demands. But they were also criticized as not going far enough.
Proponents of further police cuts are likely to meet resistance. Kenney has said the city cannot afford to deplete its police force as it battles a surge in gun violence, in which children are often among the victims. And Council President Darrell L. Clarke was more reserved than some of his colleagues about the need for further action on police reform, saying in an interview last week that bills already considered in June were “a good step in the right direction.”
Council passed three reform bills that month, aimed at strengthening oversight of the Police Department, diversifying its ranks, and curtailing the unlawful use of stop-and-frisk. Final votes are expected on two more measures when Council reconvenes. Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson said her bill to require public hearings on police contract proposals is “the starting point of bringing transparency and accountability to the overall contract process.” And Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson sponsored a bill to ban the use of choke holds and other controversial restraint tactics.
“If enacted, I think that will take us a long way toward dealing with police reform,” Clarke said.
After limiting the agenda in the spring first to the city’s pandemic response and then police reform, Clarke said Council will again consider a broad range of legislation.
“To the chagrin of other activities, COVID took over, civil unrest took over,” Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. said. “We still have to create jobs, we have to deal with affordable housing, we have to make sure that Philadelphia is a forward-facing city, and so we have a wider agenda that we have to get to.”
Councilmember Bobby Henon, for instance, has called for delaying a reduction to the 10-year tax abatement for new residential construction that passed last year, as the pandemic has made it difficult to get construction permits. But Brooks introduced a bill calling for the elimination of the abatement, saying it enforces systemic racism by rewarding wealthy developers and encouraging neighborhood gentrification.
Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who has previously sought to pass legislation simplifying the city’s complex business tax, said she plans to offer another reform measure.
Quiñones-Sánchez said she also will be focused on addressing Philadelphia’s poverty rate, the highest among big cities, through two major initiatives. First, she hopes to finalize by December an antipoverty plan that had been Council leadership’s top priority before the pandemic. A public-private partnership would combine city and philanthropic funding, starting with at least $20 million, to pilot and implement strategies.
She also plans to push for a “Black stimulus package” of up to $500 million, under a loan guarantee program that would allow the city to borrow against future grant money. The money, she has said, would go to “building Black businesses and wealth, affordable housing, quality education, and family-sustaining jobs in every neighborhood.”
Councilmember Cherelle Parker said she will be focused on legislation that ensures the political energy generated by the Black Lives Matter movement is used not just on police reform but also on creating economic opportunities for Black Philadelphians.
“I’m hoping that the same commitment is there when it comes to giving Black and brown people access to opportunity so they can be self-sufficient,” Parker said.
Parker said she’s developing two pieces of legislation that have not yet been finalized. One will be aimed at diversifying the Police Department by removing hiring requirements that have disproportionately kept out Black applicants. The other will be a major effort to make it easier for small companies to operate in the city.
Councilmember Allan Domb said he is also interested in tax reform but would first like the city to go “back to basics,” noting, for example, persistent delays in trash and recycling pickup this summer.
“I think the city needs to get back to its core business, and that is provide safety, pick up the trash, do the essential services,” he said.
Councilmember David Oh, one of Council’s two Republicans, said he plans to introduce a bill that would allow residents of an area to vote on the removal or preservation of controversial statues, such as the Christopher Columbus statue in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, which the city’s Art Commission voted to remove this summer.
That proposal will likely meet resistance from his Democratic colleagues. But Oh, in turn, said he is skeptical of calls to reduce police funding — in part because of increased gun violence.
“I don’t think that people in neighborhoods like mine, Cobbs Creek, overall want less police. They just want better policing,” he said. “They want to have the services of the police. That actually involves better policing. Not less.”
Councilmember Cindy Bass will introduce bills to increase fines for illegal dumping and forgive some penalties for tax-delinquent property owners, to encourage them to resume making payments.
Several members named gun violence, which was a topic of Council hearings this summer, as a top priority. But Council’s powers are limited by state preemption laws.
City efforts on police reform are also dependent on action in Harrisburg, where some lawmakers are working to change Act 111, which requires that contract disputes between local government and police and fire unions be resolved through binding arbitration, and limits the city’s ability to demand change from the police union.
“There are a lot of different opinions out there on how do we police our city [and] specifically communities of color,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. “We’re just getting started.”