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After days of protests against police brutality, Mayor Jim Kenney pledges police reforms

“This moment is a beginning,” the mayor said.

Mayor Jim Kenney speaks during a news conference at the city's Emergency Operations Center about protests in Philadelphia against the death of George Floyd on May 30. Protests began peacefully May 30, drawing thousands to City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but later turned tense as building windows were smashed and cars set on fire in Center City.
Mayor Jim Kenney speaks during a news conference at the city's Emergency Operations Center about protests in Philadelphia against the death of George Floyd on May 30. Protests began peacefully May 30, drawing thousands to City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but later turned tense as building windows were smashed and cars set on fire in Center City.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney on Tuesday announced a broad set of goals for reforming the Philadelphia Police Department, saying he wanted to review or change policies including how and when officers use their guns, how they are disciplined, and how much civilian oversight they are subjected to.

He also said he would eliminate a proposed increase to the Police Department’s budget for the next fiscal year — an abrupt change of course following an outcry from activists and City Council members over his plan to boost police funding by $19 million over the current budget while making steep cuts to other city departments due to the fiscal crisis caused by the coronavirus.

The proposals — made in the wake of protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis — were ambitious, but in some cases were vague or are beyond the mayor’s control.

Kenney said that he had listened to protesters, activists, and elected officials who have taken to the streets to voice long-held frustrations with law enforcement, and that the time was right to harness the energy from the demonstrations into action.

“This moment is a beginning,” the mayor said.

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The proposals came as protesters demanding police reform marched across the city for an 11th consecutive day. The National Guard remained stationed outside City Hall and the Municipal Services Building on Tuesday morning even as demonstrations this week have stayed peaceful and decreased in size.

Kenney’s announcement came a day before Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and her top command staff were expected to appear at a City Council budget hearing, which is certain to attract advocates of even more funding cuts. The budget for the 6,500-member Police Department has increased by more than 15% since Kenney took office in 2016.

Council members this week had begun voicing support for police budget cuts and reforms. On Monday, 14 City Council members sent Kenney a letter demanding 15 specific changes to the Police Department. Several of those recommendations, including the formation of an independent police advisory commission and the establishment of city residency requirements for officers, were also in Kenney’s plans.

“It’s clear from the statement that City Council’s letter to the mayor yesterday, which recommended specific reforms in the police force, was influential in the reforms announced today,” said Joe Grace, a spokesperson for Council President Darrell L. Clarke. “Council is listening and acting, and everything must change.”

Some activists were hopeful that Kenney responded to the ongoing demonstrations with a plan for action, but also said they would continue pushing him to divert more money from the Police Department and toward issues such as the opioid crisis, poverty, health care, and education.

“In the poorest big city in America, the [coronavirus] pandemic shows all the needs the residents of this city have that don’t rely on the Police Department,” said Hiram Rivera, director of the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability.

Among the more immediate changes Kenney proposed was announcing that Outlaw would quickly revise the department’s use-of-force policies — which already prohibit choke holds — to also ban officers from sitting on a person’s neck, face, or head. He also said Outlaw would provide “detailed guidance regarding the circumstances under which firearms may and should be unholstered or pointed, and mandates for the reporting of such actions.”

He said the department would also take on a broader review of its use-of-force policies generally, including input from the public. The department in 2017 completed a series of changes to its use-of-force policies after the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a years-long review at former Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s request.

Many of the other proposals from Kenney were more ambiguous or aspirational — or would require steps beyond his purview.

One example is his proposal regarding the police union contract.

Kenney said the city “intends to seek several changes” to the next contract with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, such as reestablishing residency requirements for officers, cutting the union out of decisions on officer transfers, and changing pillars of the arbitration system governing how officers are disciplined — all goals that reform advocates have long sought.

But Kenney’s administration — which earlier this year agreed to a one-year contract with the police union — can’t begin negotiating a new contract until later this year. And stripping a collective bargaining agreement of provisions the union has negotiated is likely to be a steep challenge.

Some provisions in the contract, including the grievance arbitration process, also are governed by state law, curtailing what the city can seek when negotiating a new pact.

City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said that by making priorities clear in advance, the city might be in a better position to push for certain changes. John McNesby, the union’s president, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Kenney also said Outlaw and his administration would work to make citizen complaints and Internal Affairs investigations more transparent, including by releasing quarterly reports about each issue. But his administration had previously placed citizen complaints online in a database that obscured meaningful information, including the names of the officers involved. Managing Director Brian Abernathy said Tuesday that the administration would still have to balance the public’s right to know with the privacy concerns of officers.

Some other goals lacked a timeline for implementation, such as hiring a deputy inspector general focused exclusively on problems within law enforcement agencies, or creating a permanent civilian oversight commission to succeed the current Police Advisory Commission.

Others lacked details, such as a promise to roll out a system that would flag problematic officers internally, and a pledge to increase diversity within the ranks without specifying metrics for progress.

Regarding the department’s budget, Kenney did not specify how much money he would cut from his $760 million proposal, which is $19 million more than was approved by City Council last year and $11 million more than the department is on track to spend in the current fiscal year.

Currently, 96% of the proposed police budget would be allocated for payroll. Kenney said he did not yet know whether officers would be laid off, saying only that he would cooperate with City Council. Council must pass a budget this month for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Contributing to this article were staff writers Justine McDaniel, Oona Goodin-Smith, Erin McCarthy, Rob Tornoe, Anna Orso, and Juliana Feliciano Reyes.