Police brutality and violence has a long history — throughout which little has changed. This week was a tipping point as people across the country, including in Philadelphia, took to the streets to march and protest after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Serious steps are needed, including rethinking the role and responsibilities for the police, or how we organize police departments.
The Inquirer reached out to a variety of stakeholders, including elected officials, activists, and law enforcement, to share their opinions on concrete steps that police departments can take.
Interviews by Elena Gooray, Abraham Gutman, and Kevin Riordan. Quotes have been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan is the pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in North Philadelphia.
If we’re going to have institutions that don’t perpetuate racist ideology, we have to figure out how to do something that is more actively antiracist. We have to recognize that the neutral position in our society is fundamentally racist. If we are going to get to something else, that’s the piece that we have to dismantle.
In the meantime, let’s stop letting police police themselves. Let’s have a real, actual, independent police accountability process. If you want to do policing in the city of Philadelphia, you need to actually live here. Active and aggressive recruitment among people who live here. And that’s not to say that giving a black person a badge changes a racist system, but there is just something about the experience of being harassed while driving or walking or coming to do business in the police station, and being treated poorly, I think those experiences could matter.
Andrea Custis is the president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Philadelphia.
Had we not had cameras from the store, or from other people, there would have been a different story that came out [about George Floyd]. I want police to invest the money and use body cameras and dashboard cameras. When you have these cameras, there is no way that you can dispute the record and the truth of what you see. The only reason why we are all here today, even talking about George Floyd, is because you saw the knee on the neck. You heard him cry out for his mother.
Danielle Outlaw is the commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department.
As police, we can’t be in enforcement mode all the time. We have to get out there in order to establish trust with the communities and be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the community. People have to see us beyond our uniforms and beyond our badges. In order to do that we have to spend time within our communities outside of solely enforcing laws.
And in order to do that we have to build in discretionary time into officers’ shifts so they’re not chasing the radio, going from call to call to call. And the only way to do that is to ensure that some of these other agencies or nonprofits are really stepping up and providing the social services that are needed so we can do a lot of that proactive relationship-building that is so essential, especially right now.
[Defunding the police] is an argument that’s been going on for years. The problem is that we’re not sitting on a piggy bank. Quite frankly what’s happened over the last several days has made it very clear that we have to be prepared in order to deal with whatever comes our way. Resources are expensive. The ability to get ahead of crime is expensive, because there’s a lot of overtime used. The ability to be involved in contemporary policing involves the use of technology, also very expensive. All of the equipment that we need our officers to be equipped with costs a lot of money. So in order for us to be cutting-edge in order for us to be data-driven, evidence-based, and to do all of the things that we need to do to be effective, and working within the principles of 21st Century Policing, it’s gonna cost some money.
Malik Neal is director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund.
One assumption we’ve operated under for a long time is that policing is the answer to every problem — whether that be substance abuse, homelessness, folks’ mental health [issues]. This is wrong. To cultivate a safer community, we’re going to have to reduce the power of the police and their contact with the public.
I recently visited a friend in the suburbs of Philly, and I saw no police, really. The reason is that these communities historically, and by choice, have been invested in. People there have decent jobs, housing, quality schools, adequate programs and resources for their kids. It turns out that if people have resources to survive and thrive, you don’t have to rely on policing and punishment. We already have communities with little to no police. The problem is we as a society refuse to accept a world where police aren’t policing poor, black communities. The communities that are safest are the ones with more resources, not more police.
Cory Booker is a U.S. senator from New Jersey.
The federal law that we’re working on is really about a number of pillars that will make a difference. The first one is that idea of accountability, that every police department should be collecting data and reporting data that is critical for police accountability. That means on police use of force, conduct complaints, online misconduct of police officers. Mandate the kind of data collection that will help activists to mayors to governors have a transparent view into what’s happening in police departments, so that police can be held to higher standards and higher levels of professional conduct and accountability.
The next pillar that we have is, is, is making sure that police are not above the law, and that means changing on the civil side qualified immunity and on the criminal statute changing 242 so that the federal government can bring criminal charges against police for misconduct. And then there are battery practices from implicit bias training to the end of racial profiling to the end of choke hold and no knock entry.
It is so important that we begin to reimagine how our society could be investing in human potential, human achievement, as opposed to the kind of policing and policing practices that you hear protesters in the street demanding that we end.
Thomas Nestel is the chief of SEPTA’s Transit Police.
I’ll hold people accountable for inappropriate behavior, but I also want to do positive things for people who act the way that we expect police officers to act.
Here’s an example: When a police officer makes a great arrest or does a great piece of investigative work, good police work, we give them what’s called a commendation and it goes on their uniform. The highest commendation was valor. That was [given] if you were in a gun battle with an armed and dangerous adversary. I’ve changed that. The highest award in the Transit Police is called excellence in leadership, and that award is issued to police officers that report wrongdoing. And a number of officers received that award because they’ve reported other police officers for doing the wrong thing.
That’s what we have to do to change the culture.
Melissa Robbins is a social and economic justice activist.
The police captain in each neighborhood should be the person forging the relationships with the local coalitions, CDCs [community development corporations], nonprofits. A good police captain will know who are the major stakeholders in that community, and who are the voices of love and caring. The captain should work with state representatives, city councilmembers, and, more important, with the actual leadership on the ground who gets out there and does street sweeping, knocks doors, watches the polls on election day. If the captain is not an intricate and visible part in his police district, it’s going to be problematic. If community and citizens first see the captain when there’s a shooting, then he’s not a friend to the community — he’s an adversary. You don’t want to be recognized as an adversary.
[To improve things], the residential requirement for officers must change. If officers want to support their families on the dollars of hardworking Philadelphia taxpayers, they need to live amongst us, shop amongst us, fellowship amongst us, educate their children amongst our children. If you want to police us, you need to be a part of our community.
If you lived among us, you would get to know who black and brown people are at heart. This would help to dispel a lot of the stereotypes created about us. Unfortunately, that does not happen, so they should be mandated to [live in] Philadelphia County as residents.
Scott Thomson is a retired chief of the Camden County Police Department.
I was in law enforcement for 27 years, 25 of them in Camden, with 11 years as chief. We should have fewer cops. But those cops should be paid more, educated more, and held to a higher standard.
Police departments tend to be all groupthink, because we’re all from the same culture, and we echo each other. You have to bring in external [viewpoints]. You need to have lines of communication with your critics.
The barriers of secrecy are not as broad as [police departments] like to pretend they are. Why shouldn’t the public have input into a use-of-force policy? They should absolutely have the ability to give thought, give voice. In Camden, we respected the community and gave them the opportunity to have input. And that made a huge difference.
Charles Ramsey served as Philadelphia police commissioner under Mayor Michael Nutter and on President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force.
Oftentimes police are used by government to do things that just make us even more unpopular. For example, citations for not wearing a mask [for COVID-19]. We got people that have just lost jobs and are already stressed out to begin with because they’re under the gun, and then we give them a ticket and that’s another $50 or $100, or whatever the hell the fine is on top of all that. Instead of giving them a citation, give them a frickin’ mask. Some people aren’t wearing masks because they can’t afford to buy one. It’s little things like that that can make a difference.
It’s the little things that start to build that kind of legitimacy and trust that as a profession we need. And then when you have that one bad incident — and you will have bad incidents — you don’t have the kind of outrage that you get now in cities across America. Even though it was in Minneapolis and we’re in Philadelphia. We’ve got our own baggage here. People relate to it, and that’s why they hit the streets in cities that really had nothing to do with the incident itself. It’s about the total picture.
Martha Williams is a family advocate for community defense.
Thorough, proper investigations need to take place. Going out and just grabbing anybody has to stop. That’s how innocent people are getting caught up in a system that is not for them. That outcome of that is no good for nobody. It’s not even good for the victim because you just have somebody, you don’t have the person who actually caused harm. That is coming from lack of investigations and the lack of cooperation with the police department.
Jamie Gauthier is a member of the Philadelphia City Council representing the 3rd District.
Certainly we need to have a higher clearance rate for homicide. We need to provide justice for people who have been taken in that manner and for their families. But we can look at some other metrics. What kind of trust have you built with the community? What do you know about the communities that you’re interacting within? I don’t know if there is a way to measure that, but how many arrests have you deterred through relationship-building? How many partnerships have you created?
I had a campaign office on 52nd Street and Larchwood Ave. There was a lineup of kids that would stand on that corner. It was a very active drug corner. A metric might be how many of those young people did we channel into other opportunities? If you think about it more broadly, we can imagine other metrics and bring them into this conversation as well.
Hiram Rivera is the executive director at Community Resource Hub for Safety & Accountability.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Police Department decided they were no longer going to arrest for quality-of-life issues, low-level offenses, and they were going to primarily stick to violent crime and excessive acts of violence. In that month there was a dip in the crime rate. Police departments all across the country that did this saw that there was a dip in the crime rate. When police stopped ticketing and arresting for low-level offenses and quality-of-life issues, the crime rates actually went down.
If you divest from policing, cut the budgets that you give to police departments, and reinvest those funds into the city agencies and the social services that everyone needs, then you will see a significant decrease in crime.
Step number one is divestment. The city of Philadelphia in this budget right now, should look at ways, where they can cut the funding from police. The police don’t need any more tanks. They don’t need any more military weapons. They don’t need any more gas grenades and tear gas. Instead put that toward education. A Philadelphia School District that has been bankrupt for almost a decade, at this point. A national shame. Divest from police and put it into our schools. The police are not going to collapse.
Michael Chitwood is the retired police chief of Upper Darby.
In this day and age, a police officer has to strive to be all things to all people, because the police are called upon to perform all kinds of services. Leadership starts at the top: [deciding] you’re not going to tolerate police brutality or misconduct. Now, that’s easily said, but sometimes the police have more protections than you can shake a stick at. Based on my experience, what that does is protect the bums. If what’s being reported about this officer that was involved in the incident in which George Floyd was killed, he shouldn’t have been a police officer. His past record would say: How many bites at the apple do you get? These guys get the protection of their unions, which I don’t have a problem with. But at the same time, when you protect the bums, the criminals, in a force, that’s something I’m against.
Look at Philadelphia. The number of officers who have been fired by the police commissioner and get their job back — very seldom do you not get your job back unless you went to prison or something like that. And that’s across the country. I’m not saying officers don’t deserve protection, but they don’t deserve more protection than the average community member.
Arbitration is where changes to those policies need to start. If a police official decides to terminate the employment of a bad actor, that should be it. What we’re seeing is more and more arbitrators overturning that decision and letting those guys back on the street. In my experience, based on 55 years in law enforcement, that’s a bad omen that sends a horrible message.
Donavan West is president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Commerce of PA, NJ, and DE.
There need to be policies that red-flag all officers that have multiple civilian complaints filed against them. This would not be for automatic suspension, because some allegations can be false, and we want to give the benefit of the doubt. But if [serious] complaints reach a certain number, there should be an intervention. And if brutality is proven, there should be zero tolerance.