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Philly Police ask for $24M budget increase as they struggle to fill vacancies and control shooting surge

Councilmembers also grilled police brass on what the department is doing to improve slow 911 response times.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at a press conference in March. She and other police officials testified before City Council Tuesday.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at a press conference in March. She and other police officials testified before City Council Tuesday.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s top cops testified before City Council for nearly four hours Tuesday, answering questions on a sprawling list of public safety issues as the department seeks a $23.7 million budget increase.

The bump in dollars to the department is almost entirely to fund contractually obligated pay raises for police officers and would bring the department’s overall budget to nearly $800 million, the highest of any city agency.

Councilmembers peppered Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw with questions about the force, including why the department has struggled to fill hundreds of open positions amid a surge in shootings. Police officials said that they had hoped for more money to fund recruiting efforts but that those dollars weren’t included in Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget proposal unveiled in March.

Beyond the recruiting woes, Outlaw and her deputies answered questions about why police don’t solve most shootings, what the department is doing to improve slow 911 response times, and how it could eventually shift some mundane police responsibilities — like monitoring construction sites and delivering mail — to other agencies.

Here are four takeaways from the budget hearing:

Officer shortages and recruitment woes

Kenney and Outlaw have each spoken repeatedly about the 6,300-member department’s officer shortage, which they have attributed to two problems: There are more than 400 vacancies the department has struggled to fill, and hundreds more officers are out on injury claims through a process that’s frequently abused.

Outlaw said departments across the country have faced record levels of retirements and resignations, a trend she blamed in part on “the narrative over the last couple of years” that “undermined our credibility and authority.”

» READ MORE: Mayor Kenney’s proposed budget increases spending for police and antiviolence programs. Here’s what it would do.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke said he was surprised to see that the mayor’s proposal had allocated just $10,700 for recruitment in the department’s budget, and pressed police brass for specifics on its recruitment strategy, asking whether it has a defined timeline or a social media strategy for filling its vacancies.

“I’m a little, kind of dismayed, to be honest with you,” he said.

Police asked for $125,000 to fund recruitment efforts but did not receive that allocation in the mayor’s proposal, Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter said.

City spokesperson Kevin Lessard said that “given the general fiscal constraints of the city, not all requests for funding are able to be accommodated.” The city’s Office of Human Resources also receives funding to recruit city employees in all departments.

Outlaw noted that the administration did waive a rule requiring police live in the city before applying and so the department is — as of this month — able to recruit anywhere.

And multiple councilmembers also questioned the department on the more than 11% of sworn officers listed as injured on duty, using a program that an Inquirer investigation found is rife with abuse.

Police officials said the definition of “injury” was tweaked during the most recent contract negotiations with the police union, leaders are working with risk management to identify qualified doctors to assess officers with claims, and at least one investigation into abuse of the system was referred to the District Attorney’s Office.

911 response times are slow amid staff turnover

A similar staffing shortage has plagued the city’s 911 call center, which has seen massive turnover. The department is budgeted to staff the center with about 300 employees — and Coulter said more than 100 have been hired in the last year.

In the last two years, response times have dipped dramatically. Department records submitted to Council show that since last summer, they answered about 62% of calls within 10 seconds or less, down from 89% two years ago.

And an Inquirer analysis of department records found the average amount of time it took for police to arrive at a scene after a call jumped 20% in 2021 compared with the year before, going from about 18 minutes to nearly 22 minutes.

Coulter said times are “steadily improving” and the department is soon adding another class of call-takers.

Councilmember Cherelle Parker asked whether the department could implement infrastructure to allow for residents to text 911 for help, saying she recently visited police in New York City who shared information about their technology.

Coulter was skeptical the department could handle such a program, saying the number of phone calls handled per operator in Philadelphia — about 10,000 a day in the summer — is “way greater” than in New York City, which has five times as many call center employees.

Low shootings clearance rates are marginally improving

The Police Department has for years faced a number of well-documented challenges in solving shooting cases and has been criticized for its low clearance rate. Earlier this year, the department launched a unit of about 40 detectives dedicated solely to solving nonfatal shootings with a goal of improving the number of cases that lead to an arrest.

» READ MORE: In 8,500 shootings since 2015, suspects have been charged in 1 out of 5 cases

Since that unit launched in late January, its clearance rate has reached nearly 30%, the department’s goal for shooting cases in which the victim doesn’t die, said Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Naish, who leads investigations.

Councilmember Helen Gym said that goal “feels low,” and Outlaw responded that “it was in the teens before, so we had to identify some incremental change.”

The commissioner said the department aims to solve 65% of homicides. Last year it solved about 40%, department records show.

The mayoral politics of it all

It’s nothing new for members of City Council to repeatedly question officials about their pet projects or personal grievances, but the political gamesmanship is different this year as a handful of members are said to be considering running for mayor next year — and each of their priorities are taking shape.

Gym, for example, began her questioning by asking about the process of “civilianization,” or the idea that some responsibilities that fall on police could be handled by unarmed city employees.

Coulter said those changes are subject to collective bargaining and there’s no timeline for shifting more responsibilities away from sworn officers.

Parker spent much of her time touting her public safety plan, which called for the city to fund an additional 125 police officers and commit to increasing bike and foot patrols in neighborhoods.

Deputy Commissioner Joel Dales, who leads patrol operations, said he’s concerned that amid an officer shortage, moving more police to bike patrols could negatively affect response times.

Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who represents much of Kensington, focused on quality-of-life issues that have long plagued the neighborhood, and said she’s concerned about the recent proliferation of xylazine, a powerful sedative infiltrating Philadelphia’s drug supply.

She was joined by Councilmember Allan Domb, who has recently called for an emergency declaration in Kensington, describing the neighborhood as “a humanitarian crisis.”

Chief Inspector Michael McCarrick said police are working to address open drug use while balancing a concern that inadvertently pushing it indoors can drive an increase in overdoses.