Philly Mayor Jim Kenney promised police reform. It’s a work in progress a year later.
Officials have implemented several reforms, while many others remain bogged down by bureaucracy, hampered by legal restrictions, or outside of local government’s control.
Last spring, after Philadelphia police fired tear gas into a residential neighborhood and at people protesting police brutality amid days of unrest, Mayor Jim Kenney announced a series of reforms aimed at spurring “meaningful change” within the 6,500-member Police Department.
A year later, his administration, City Council, and other officials have succeeded in implementing several of those changes, while many others remain works in progress — bogged down by bureaucracy, hampered by legal restrictions, or outside of local government’s control.
Last week, the city announced the appointment of a deputy inspector general of public safety, a promise Kenney made in his initial list of proposals last year. City Council also agreed to create a new system of police oversight that officials hope will be more active and effective.
But progressive lawmakers continue to call on Kenney to divert additional funding toward community efforts to curb gun violence. And some advocates lament that a year after “Defund the Police” became their rallying cry — and after they demanded the mayor go even further, reallocating taxpayer money from law enforcement and to schools, recreation centers, and jobs programs — he has not proposed trimming the Police Department’s $727 million budget.
”The mayor is proud of the department’s progress over the last year, and he understands that true systemic reform takes time,” Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble said.
In some ways, that mix of progress and frustration has mirrored efforts elsewhere. Congressional leaders in Washington have said they are optimistic about passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, but they failed to do so before last Tuesday, the anniversary of Floyd’s death and a deadline that President Joe Biden had urged lawmakers to meet.
The National Council on State Legislators reported last month that 24 states and the District of Columbia passed laws last year expanding police oversight, accountability, or transparency, with some mandating the use of body cameras, others banning neck restraints, and some addressing other use-of-force issues.
Pennsylvania State Rep. Donna Bullock, a Philadelphia Democrat and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said in an interview that she remains “carefully optimistic” about the state of criminal justice reform locally, noting that it stayed on the minds of many lawmakers, even amid a pandemic and economic crisis.
“Not just here in Philadelphia, but mayors and councilmembers across the state are asking for reform,” she said, “and they haven’t stopped asking for reform.”
Flat funding, with some new wrinkles
If “Defund the Police” was the chant of last year, Kenney has continued to resist it.
His proposed budget for the next fiscal year calls for flat funding of the Police Department, which typically represents about one-sixth of the city’s annual operating budget. Additional money for law enforcement reforms — including a system to try to identify problem officers and a $5 million investment in forensics — would be funneled through the Managing Director’s Office.
Police officials have long pointed out that personnel costs make up the vast majority of the department’s expenses, and Kenney has said he doesn’t want to reduce the size of the force, especially as shootings and homicides continue at an alarming pace. The city expects labor costs to continue to rise for all municipal unions.
Kris Henderson, executive director of Amistad Law Project, a civil rights legal and advocacy organization, said that activists were disappointed by police funding remaining flat, but that the group will continue to push officials on issues it believes will reduce inequities and ultimately bolster public safety — including a shift away from law enforcement and toward community empowerment.
“What we are hoping people start to recognize is that there absolutely are things that our public officials can do to make our cities safer,” Henderson said. “But pouring resources into the cops is not the thing that’s going to do it.”
Some of the re-routed police funding in Kenney’s budget would go toward programs that reform advocates have sought. About $6 million would be put toward a new citywide program pairing behavioral health specialists with officers in responding to mental health-related 911 calls.
Similar models have been adopted in other cities, and the goal is to reduce the reliance on armed officers for issues that could be addressed by non-enforcement professionals.
Katia Pérez, an organizer with the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia, said she and other advocates ultimately want to push that program and other functions currently handled by police to become even more divorced from law enforcement.
“What more can we civilianize, and not have it be cops with weapons showing up at people’s homes?” she asked.
City Council on Thursday approved another major plank of the reforms Kenney’s proposed last spring: a new police oversight body.
The Citizen’s Police Oversight Commission — which will replace the existing Police Advisory Commission — will have the authority to investigate all citizen complaints against police, and will have subpoena power and access to crime scenes and records. Nine residents will be chosen by a selection panel and confirmed by Council to serve on the commission.
The Police Advisory Commission has been criticized as lacking the authority and funding to provide effective oversight, and lawmakers said they hope the new commission will be an improvement.
The administration also added another, separate layer of oversight, hiring Adam Geer, a former prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, as deputy inspector general for public safety.
Geer said his work will involve identifying areas for policy change and working with the police to make that happen. He hopes the work can be more collaborative than antagonistic.
“There’s a real will and a real understanding that this is what the citizens of Philadelphia want and expect, and that they expect real results,” Geer said in an interview. “In an ideal world, I would present something to the Police Department and they would agree with me ... and there would be a policy change.”
The Police Department has also released more detailed narratives of complaints against officers and collaborated with the Police Advisory Commission to examine the internal discipline process. The department is working to implement an early intervention system to track indicators for officer misconduct — a process that Gamble, Kenney’s spokesperson, said would take at least a year once the city chooses a vendor for the technology. And officers will receive training in implicit bias.
Obstacles to change
Not all change is that seamless.
Paul Hetznecker, part of a team of lawyers representing demonstrators suing the city over its response to protests last spring in West Philadelphia and on I-676, said he hopes their ongoing litigation will spur officials to agree to further reforms, and “achieve the level of transparency and accountability necessary for long-term institutional change to occur within the Philadelphia Police Department.”
Another hurdle to significant reform is the contract between the police officers’ union and the city, which, under state law, is written by a panel of arbitrators, leaving few avenues for meaningful public input. Council in November held a hearing for residents to voice their ideas, but it’s not clear what impact that may have — and the union sued over the practice. That lawsuit is pending.
The current police contract expires July 1. Negotiations over a new pact are ongoing.
District Attorney Larry Krasner had cast the prosecutions as long-overdue steps toward holding police accountable. “The people want and deserve justice and change, including police accountability, even though some institutional players are in denial,” Krasner said after the second dismissal.
Bullock, the Philadelphia state representative, said that a year’s worth of activism has spurred real, if incremental, change, and that the challenge moving forward is for officials and citizens alike to sustain energy around the issue.
“That work on the ground has informed legislation in the Capitol,” Bullock said. “I want to encourage people to continue to do that work.”
-Staff writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.