Philly plans to increase police funding while cutting city services. Critics say that’s a mistake.
About one-quarter of the city's nearly $5 billion budget is allocated toward criminal justice programs such as police and prisons.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s revised coronavirus-era budget proposal slashes initiatives focused on youth violence prevention, workforce development, and arts and culture. It lays off hundreds of workers who run programs at recreation centers and libraries.
But the Philadelphia Police Department is slated to get $14 million more than what the mayor proposed in his initial budget.
That increase is now the target of local criminal justice reform advocates, who have called for City Council to reject any proposal that adds funding to the Police Department. The demand comes as thousands of Americans take to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer amid the long history of police brutality against black people.
The budget, activists say, is a symbol of where the mayor’s priorities lie.
“The proposed $14 million increase, especially at the expense of other services, is not only going to impact poor communities’ ability to lift themselves out of the economic downturn, but it’s also going to criminalize us. Black neighborhoods, especially," said Devren Washington, an organizer at the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter. “Because we know that the city will basically try to arrest its way out of its major problems."
Community groups and advocates are making similar demands in cities across the country, such as Los Angeles, where the police department is the only department not slated for cuts, and Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. It’s the latest in a series of police accountability campaigns over the years — most recently, Philly activists had set their sights on influencing the police union contract — but nationwide protests are shining a new light on similar efforts.
The current budget campaign calls attention to what criminal justice reform advocates have said for years: Local governments spend enormous resources on policing at the expense of other services.
“As a country, we are continuously increasing the amount of spending that we do on policing and criminalization, and that naturally comes with trade-offs,” Kumar Rao, director of the Justice Transformation Program at the Center for Popular Democracy, told The Intercept.
About one-quarter of the city’s proposed $4.9 billion budget is allocated to criminal justice. Police ($760 million) and prisons ($217 million) make up 20% of the proposed general fund budget. In Minneapolis, police and prisons made up 37% of the 2019 budget, according to Local Progress, a network of local elected officials pushing progressive policy. In New York, police and prisons made up 10% of the 2019 budget.
The economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is another intensifying factor, said Chenjerai Kumanyika, a Rutgers University professor who studies social justice.
At a time when the city is cutting public services but increasing the police budget, he said, “a claim like ‘defund the police’ suddenly becomes legible to people.
“It’s ‘defund the police’ in light of COVID austerity,” Kumanyika said. “Suddenly, people can hear it.”
City Council must approve Kenney’s budget before it becomes final, and activists have planned to virtually flood a budget hearing on June 9. Freshman Councilmember Kendra Brooks, part of a group of black elected officials who proposed a series of police reform plans Tuesday, said she did not approve of the budget.
“If the city is serious about beginning to repair the harm caused by generations of police brutality and systemic racism, then they should start by rethinking the amount of resources we pour into the police budget and allocating those resources to stabilizing working-class and poor communities of color," she said in a statement.
Still, it will be difficult to pass a budget without an increase to the Police Department.
That’s because in the early days of the pandemic, the city and the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, agreed to a one-year contract extension that includes 2.5% pay increase. That raise is the majority of the $14 million addition to the department. Now that the contract has been extended, both sides need to agree to reopening negotiations if there are to be any changes. That’s not likely to happen. The FOP did not respond to requests for comment.
The city negotiated one-year extensions with all the municipal unions, saying it was important for workers to focus on the pandemic, not employment contract negotiations.
But the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, who was leading the charge for citizens to have a say in the police contract, slammed the extension as “absolutely irresponsible" and lacking transparency.
“It reinforces, quite frankly, many of the reasons that persons like myself are angry and upset at the special treatment that law enforcement gets,” he said.
All the municipal unions got 2% raises as part of their extension, except for the FOP and the AFSCME District Council 33 local representing correctional officers, which got 2.5% raises.
Mayoral spokesperson Mike Dunn said the increase to the Police Department includes funding to reduce gun violence and “advance reform” within the department with such measures as anti-racism training and equipping more officers with body cameras.
It also includes a roughly $5 million reduction in overtime, according to city budget records.
Critics argue that cutting police budgets will lead to more crime. There is, however, little evidence to suggest that drops in violent crime are linked to more officers, according to a 2019 investigation by USA Today, the Marshall Project, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
There could be other consequences, however. In Memphis, Tenn., after the city’s police department cut its budget during the 2008 recession, the department spent millions in overtime, criminal justice reporter Simone Weichselbaum told Marketplace. Research shows that’s a “recipe for disaster,” she said, because it leads to cops being angry and overworked.
“And that’s just a powder keg waiting to explode," said Weichselbaum, one of the authors of the 2019 USA Today investigation.
Advocates point to the fact that crime is a systemic problem — one that’s caused when communities are “starved of resources," Washington said, such as mental-health services, education, and arts and culture, many of which the city intends to cut or reduce.
As Philadelphia Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey put it: “We’re going to have to balance that understanding that we all have a role to play: If you fund one side of the system, nothing’s going to change.”
The city employs 7,526 full-time Police Department workers, 6,575 whom are officers, the city said. The median salary for a full-time officer was $76,187.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on June 3, 2020, at 11 a.m. to reflect the number of full-time officers in the Philadelphia Police Department.