Congrats to Mayor Kenney for his reelection. During his campaign, he promised to be accountable to the people, and that starts with the appointment of the Philadelphia police commissioner. The community wants massive change, both to the culture of the police department and to the way people are policed. It is now on Kenney to deliver.
I could feel the community’s anger over the state of the Philadelphia Police Department at a recent forum we hosted on policing in this city.
The last commissioner resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. Over 300 officers posted racist and sexist social media posts. Officers remain on the force despite using physical force against vulnerable people. And rather than solving serious crimes — police here make arrests in just 47% of all murder cases and 23% of all nonfatal shootings — they are busy stopping people over the “smell” of marijuana with over 3,300 drivers in the first quarter of 2019 alone, 84% of whom were black.
Positive change is possible. I write today to tell Kenney what members from the community want from the next police commissioner.
A radical transformation in how we police. We do not need to answer every societal problem with arrests and imprisonment. That’s deeply embedded in our muscle memory, but it hasn’t worked. Broken windows policing, stop-and-frisk practices, and the war on drugs have not made us safer. Stop-and-frisk actions in Philadelphia, for example, resulted in gun recovery in less than 1% of all stops. What those policies have done, however, is lead to alarming rates of arrests for black and brown boys and men. The next commissioner should pledge to focus on solving the serious violent crimes that are harming the community instead of harassing citizens for low-level offenses.
A change in how law enforcement polices our children. When we put kids in handcuffs, we make our communities less safe and do real harm to our kids. Kids who are arrested are more likely to drop out of school and they are more likely to make less money and, relatedly, reoffend in the future. We should stop arresting kids. They don’t belong in police cars, they belong in school. Counselors, and not police, should be the first responders for incidents in schools or involving children.
A commissioner who fights back against the police union. Nearly every time we hear a story of an officer abusing power, whether through violence or racist Facebook postings, the police union is there to defend the bad behavior. We need a commissioner who isn’t in lockstep with the union and who will instead push back when the union tries to hide and justify bad behavior. The commissioner must also support a union contract that allows for more officer accountability, even if that is an unpopular position with the rank and file.
An increase in accountability. The Philadelphia police force includes officers who make racist comments, who disproportionately target communities of color, and who use physical violence when making arrests. But even when these allegations surface, many of the offending officers are allowed to remain on the police force. This must stop now, and the police commissioner must promise to implement a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior. The commissioner should also support a citizen review board that actually has the power to hold officers accountable.
An increase in transparency. The public should not be in the dark about what is happening within the police department. When there are allegations of corruption or police abuse of power, we should know about it. Mayor Kenney recently took a step back and removed information from the public database that documents public complaints against the police. We want more transparency, not less.
A transparent search process. The search for a new commissioner is shrouded in secrecy, and the Mayor’s Office has not committed to having candidates meet with the community. This is a mistake. The mayor is accountable to us, the voters, and the commissioner is, too. Representatives from our community should be a part of the hiring process. If the commissioner avoids us when just a candidate, how will that person respond when he or she’s already in office and things get hard?
Of course, people expressed many more thoughts and demands at the town hall, and we expect and hope that Kenney will continue to hear from them. But a commissioner who commits to meeting these demands will have taken a critical step forward in repairing a system that is deeply broken.