Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy announced Tuesday that he and Mayor Jim Kenney decided he should step down less than two years into his tenure as the city’s top nonelected official to allow for more diverse leadership as the city responds to demands that it reform policing and address racial inequities.
The surprise resignation marks the administration’s highest-profile response to the protests of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and follows criticism of how the Police Department, which falls under Abernathy’s broad portfolio, handled the demonstrations.
“It’s important to broaden the table, broaden the decision-making, and frankly I hope the next managing director is an African-American, and maybe even an African-American woman,” Abernathy, who is white, said at a virtual news conference. “We have deep racial divides here. I am painfully aware of that. ... I’ve been born with privileges that frankly are unfair.”
The planned departure, scheduled for Sept. 4, is an abrupt about-face for the administration. The mayor two weeks ago denied rumors Abernathy’s job was in jeopardy, and Abernathy said at the time that he had no plans to leave. Kenney on Tuesday dodged questions about what had changed, and Abernathy said one factor was that he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Protesters of police brutality have focused on Abernathy, who has been one of the more visible members of the administration since taking a leading role in the city’s public response to the coronavirus pandemic. Three weeks ago, demonstrators shut down the lobby of the Municipal Services Building, where he works, and called for his resignation.
Kenney elevated Abernathy to managing director in January 2019. In that role, a position unique to Philadelphia among large U.S. cities, Abernathy essentially serves as the city’s chief operating officer, overseeing the heads of city agencies and reporting to the mayor.
Although significant decisions about policy and management are ultimately made by Kenney, the mayor’s hands-off management style has given Abernathy wide latitude to shape city government during his tenure, including in law enforcement. He has frequently appeared alongside Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw while addressing police-related issues including gun violence and the response to the protests.
He was also heavily involved last year in the secretive four-month search that led to the hiring of Outlaw, saying the former Portland, Ore., police chief was chosen out of a field of 31 candidates, including 18 from within the Philadelphia department.
“I’ve worked closely with many public servants throughout my career, and few match Brian’s level of integrity and commitment,” Kenney said in a statement. “I particularly thank him for his tireless dedication while managing multiple unprecedented crises in the past four months.”
The mayor praised Abernathy’s leadership on reducing the prison population, shepherding the Rebuild program for improvements to parks and rec centers, and guiding the city through the coronavirus pandemic. “He’s done an outstanding job,” Kenney said.
In internal debates, Abernathy was one of the more moderate voices on Kenney’s team, often siding with the Police Department at moments when more liberal members of the administration wanted to push a more aggressive reform agenda.
Soon after Kenney took office, for instance, Abernathy, who at the time held the No. 2 job in the Managing Director’s Office, argued that the mayor should abandon his campaign promise to end stop-and-frisk policing, siding with then-Police Commissioner Richard Ross. Kenney has not ended the practice, which critics say makes it easier for officers to illegally stop and search Black and Latino residents.
That dynamic made Abernathy an odd fit at a moment when the city was focusing on challenging the ways the Police Department does business. Kenney nonetheless had denied rumors that he was considering looking for a new managing director for weeks after the protests put the city’s handling of police and racial equity issues in the spotlight. He said two weeks ago that whisper campaigns in City Hall are often started by people with grudges.
“A lot of commentary that is told behind the scenes or not for attribution or unnamed — you have to look at where it’s coming from and what the motivation of that person might be,” Kenney said then. “I’m happy with our management team.”
Asked if he was leaving his current post in the near future, Abernathy said at the time, “No, not immediately.”
Abernathy said then that, despite rumors of discord between him and the mayor following the criticism of the city’s handling of the protests, his relationship with the mayor hadn’t changed.
“Oh, it’s fine. I would say, how’s anyone’s relationship with the mayor?” Abernathy said. “I’ve known Jim a long time. I know his moods. I know his personality pretty well. This has been really hard for all of us, and we’ve all had pretty s—ty days at times.”
Some activists who had been critical of Abernathy applauded his departure as a necessary first step in the process of addressing police misconduct, while others cast it as more of a symbolic gesture.
The Rev. Nicolas O’Rourke, organizing director for the progressive Pennsylvania Working Families Party, said he believed the departure signaled the administration “may, in fact, be beginning to have a genuine interest in real action to deal with police violence going forward.”
O’Rourke said he was disappointed that Kenney and Abernathy did not take bolder action during last month’s budget negotiations with City Council in response calls to “defund the police” and redistribute funds to communities of color that need more job opportunities, better schools, and neighborhood based antiviolence programs.
”It’s very clear that if we’re talking about community and public safety that the safest communities actually do not have the most police,” he said. “They have the most resources.”
Kenney, who has said he is opposed to reducing the size of the police force, and Council adopted a spending plan that largely kept the department’s more than $700 million budget intact while moving some non-officer positions like crossing guards to Abernathy’s office — a move that led to the protest at the Municipal Services Building.
Robert Saleem Holbrook, director of community organizing for the Abolitionist Law Center and a member of the Black Philly Radical Collective, cast Abernathy as a sacrificial lamb whose resignation was meant to appease activists’ demands without enacting real change.
”It is not surprising the mayor had Abernathy throw himself to the wolves in an attempt to silence the outrage and frustration over the mayor’s indecisiveness around police accountability,” Holbrook said.
Kenney said Tuesday his administration will conduct a broad search for Abernathy’s replacement. One favorite among insiders is First Deputy Managing Director Tumar Alexander, whose position Abernathy held before replacing the retiring Mike DiBerardinis.
Holbrook warned that whoever replaces Abernathy shouldn’t expect an easy ride.
“Advocates for police reform, defunding the police, and police abolition will not be appeased by this sacrifice to the people until the demands of the people are delivered upon,” he said. “If anything, his successor should expect to see more pressure.”