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Mayor Jim Kenney approved tear gas use at Philly protests, officials say as City Council questions police response

City Council members questioned use of tear gas on demonstrators and the police response to protests and looting during a budget hearing Wednesday.

Tear gas is fired at protesters who marched on the Vine Street Expressway, blocking traffic in Philadelphia on June 1.
Tear gas is fired at protesters who marched on the Vine Street Expressway, blocking traffic in Philadelphia on June 1.Read more / File Photograph

As protests over the killing of George Floyd continued into a second day in Philadelphia during the last weekend of May, Mayor Jim Kenney and other top city officials made a decision: Police could use tear gas to control the crowds of demonstrators.

That broad authorization came as protests escalated in West Philadelphia on May 31, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said during a City Council budget hearing Wednesday.

The decision of whether and when to use “less than lethal munitions,” which includes tear gas, was left to police supervisors on the ground, Abernathy said. Kenney was not involved in specifically authorizing the use of tear gas on protesters who marched onto the Vine Street Expressway on June 1, a city spokesperson said, and learned of the incident shortly after it happened.

That explanation came during a hearing in which Council members questioned the police response to civil unrest, and advocated for changes to the department. Council members described a chaotic scene on the first night of protests May 30, during which neighborhoods were left unprotected during looting because police officers were concentrated in Center City and 911 calls did not go through.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said the department had launched internal reviews of the use of tear gas and other tactics, and is reviewing its overall use-of-force policies. And Abernathy, who oversees the Police Department and told Council that he had “underestimated the anger and rage and frustration of folks that I’m hired to serve,” pledged to reform the police and increase transparency.

» READ MORE: Will Philly dismantle the Police Department for a new public safety system? It’s unlikely.

The hearing unfolded amid the 12th day of protests in Philadelphia spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Demonstrations have been peaceful for several days, and crowds have decreased in number since Saturday, when thousands of peaceful marchers filled the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Pennsylvania National Guard, which had been deployed in the city since June 1, packed up to leave but would “remain on call,” a city spokesperson said Wednesday.

The use of “less than lethal munitions” to respond to protests was authorized May 31 by Kenney and the rest of the city’s unified command group, Abernathy said. That group includes Kenney, Outlaw, Abernathy, Chief of Staff Jim Engler, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, City Solicitor Marcel Pratt, and First Deputy Managing Director Tumar Alexander.

“It was left to the commander on the ground to make the determination as it was deemed necessary,” Outlaw said.

Councilmember Helen Gym, who asked about the use of tear gas on the expressway during Wednesday’s budget hearing, said she marched in a protest on the same highway 20 years ago and police did not respond with force. She asked the administration Wednesday to commit to ending police use of tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators.

Abernathy declined to make that commitment and said he does not want to “take out tools from the tool bag” available to officers in emergencies.

“That limits options, and would actually create some challenges and increase the likelihood of inappropriate use of force," Abernathy said.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council members call for police to stop using tear gas and rubber bullets

Council members also questioned other aspects of the police response. Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said when he attempted to call 911 during the first night of protests on May 30 he could not reach an operator.

“No one was home,” he said. “I called 911 myself, multiple times. Probably 10 times that night.”

Thomas said he went out to witness the protests and violence, and encountered a woman who had been shot and was trying to call 911. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, he said, the woman drove to the scene of protests to find police and seek help.

“I don’t want to make people frantic or anything like that, but I’m 100% sure,” Thomas said when asked by Outlaw to clarify whether 911 operators failed to answer his calls.

Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., meanwhile, questioned the strategic choice for police to respond only to Center City the first night of protests as looting unfolded in several neighborhoods.

“How did we decide that Center City was where we were going to draw the line, and not in my commercial corridors?” Jones asked. “Not in the districts where tens of thousands of people like me felt helpless?”

Outlaw said that response is also under review, and that the decision was made in the moment to send police to the location with the most people.

“I don’t want you or anyone in our community or in our city to believe that there was preference given” to a specific neighborhood simply due to its location, she said.

As activists and protesters in Philadelphia and across the country continue calling for “defunding” police or eliminating police forces, City Council members on Wednesday largely expressed support for Outlaw, who began as commissioner in February.

“The commitment to support you is real,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke said. “It continues to be real. We want you to succeed.”

Council called for police reforms this week, and Kenney on Tuesday announced his own list of proposed reforms. He also said he would work with Council to eliminate a planned increase to the Police Department budget, after initially proposing $19 million more than was approved for police last year.

» READ MORE: Mayor Jim Kenney gave cops raises and shielded them from coronavirus layoffs. Protesters aren’t happy.

Details about the police budget remained unclear Wednesday. Outlaw said she hopes to spend $1.9 million for body cameras in the next fiscal year, and pay for implicit bias and anti-racism training for officers. The department also must pay for raises for officers as part of a one-year contract extension, she said, but added that those expenses can be largely offset by decreasing police overtime.

Outlaw warned that significant cuts would require staffing reductions.

“It’s not like we came to the table saying, 'Oh, and we’d like all these great toys,’” she said.

Staff writer Chris Palmer contributed to this article.