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Philadelphia mayoral candidates Rhynhart and Brown offer their public safety plans

Two recent entrants into the mayor’s race — former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and the entrepreneur Jeff Brown — describe how they would work to stem violence in the city.

Two of the candidates for Philadelphia mayor: former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart (left) and the entrepreneur Jeff Brown.
Two of the candidates for Philadelphia mayor: former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart (left) and the entrepreneur Jeff Brown.Read moreStaff illustration and photos / The Inquirer

It should hardly be surprising that polls show gun violence and public safety are the top concerns for most city residents as we approach the 2023 Philadelphia mayoral election.

After a year of record-breaking homicide figures in 2021, the first 11 months of this year have been just as unrelenting. Students have been shot on or near school grounds at Overbook, Roxborough, and Frankford High Schools. City workers have been shot while doing their jobs. Meanwhile, an entrenched police union can stifle reforms, even those intended to help the city provide much-needed respite from the mayhem. Instead of working on patrols, hundreds of officers are missing in action because of overly generous benefit programs, while others perform jobs better suited to civilians.

Given these stakes, I’ve sought to provide each mayoral candidate with an opportunity to tell Philadelphians how they would tackle the city’s biggest challenge: keeping people safe.

Earlier this year, I interviewed the first four city councilmembers who resigned to run for mayor. For this installment, I spoke with former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and the entrepreneur Jeff Brown, who has left the day-to-day running of his grocery chain to focus on the race.

Philadelphia is spending more than $200 million on antiviolence programs this year. Yet critics say that most of this money goes to programs that lack clear goals, often lack accountability, and aren’t designed to reduce violence in the short term. What changes would you make to how this money is disbursed?
Rhynhart: It’s time to declare a state of emergency

As mayor, I would declare a state of emergency. That’s something I’ve been calling on Mayor Kenney to do for years. In terms of the antiviolence intervention programs, I would put more money into the short-term programs that have been proven to work in other places. These programs combine therapy, job training, and employment. It’s been found to be incredibly successful to pull young men out of the life of violence, and there’s consequences if they don’t take that opportunity. The research from my office has shown that there’s not enough money going into short-term intervention work.

We also need to invest in the neighborhoods most impacted by violence. We need to make sure that there’s pipelines to good-paying jobs, that there’s good city services, enough library hours and rec center programming. These are the same neighborhoods that have been disinvested from by racist government programs, so we need to put more money and services into them.

Brown: More economic development

A lot of the program operators, nonprofits, and community based organizations I’ve actually worked with, and through our business, contributed to them over the years. I have no issue with them, they are doing what they’ve always done. I don’t think most of what they do has anything to do with short-term violence. So the expectation is completely disaligned with reality.

The way we should look at this, it is an infusion into community organizations, and hopefully they use the money to build up their capacity, but one of the things they need to think about is how to sustain this when federal money isn’t coming in.

You alleviate long-term poverty with a good job. We haven’t really invested city money in the kinds of workforce and economic development that we need.

We haven’t really invested city money in the kinds of workforce and economic development that we need.

Jeff Brown
The Kenney administration and the Police Department often say they are doing everything in their power and utilizing every available resource in order to solve and deter crime. Do you agree with this assessment? If not, what more can the Police Department do?
Rhynhart: Overhaul the way we do policing

There’s always more that can be done. The current administration hasn’t even declared a crime emergency, which would activate the emergency operations center, bringing together every department in the city. They haven’t put the necessary money into intervention work. As controller, my office’s audit of the Police Department showed they haven’t even evaluated Operation Pinpoint. And the clearance rate is 40%.

Police on patrol are working really hard. I want to be clear on that. But we need to make changes in the organization of policing to better provide public safety. My office laid out the recommendations to do just that. As mayor, I’d implement it. We need to redo how we allocate resources and create a community-centered police budget. A paradigm shift. True community policing will help with a lot of other issues, such as witness cooperation and recruitment.

Brown: Bolster staffing

I don’t agree. Let’s start out with leadership. I don’t think the mayor or Council have led police to the kinds of policing they want. When I talk to police officers, they seem to have a lack of clarity about the approach to solving crime and they feel they are not supported. I hear that from a lot of city workers. So this is somewhat a leadership and management problem. There’s not a clear direction.

The other problem is that we’re way understaffed. Whether you like the police or you don’t, every city in the world has police. And we’re way underinvested in crime-solving tools, like cameras, data, and forensics.

While few Philadelphia neighborhoods have been untouched by this current gun violence crisis, the situation in Kensington is particularly difficult. What is your plan to provide the clean and safe neighborhood that residents in this long-neglected community deserve?
Rhynhart: Compassionate care is the answer

I would sit down with residents and neighborhood groups that are struggling daily and involve them in the solutions that we create. We have to solve this. The status quo is unacceptable. We have to go after the dealers and suppliers that are fueling the opioid crisis. We have to shut down the open-air drug market. And we have to provide compassionate care. We can do both things at the same time.

We’re not the only place in the world that’s had an open-air drug market. We have to bring in national experts on this and say, What should we be doing?

Brown: It’s how we treat people

This is not a police thing. Most of the people have addiction problems and aren’t necessarily committing crimes. I’m on the Convention Center Board. We had a large encampment in our tunnels for years. We worked with the city and we had social workers build a relationship with the unhoused people, and to listen to them. They had some legitimate complaints about the system that exists and we try to place them into an opportunity with temporary housing that was addressing their concerns. A lot of people think that because a person is in a bad way, they’re not human. If you want to get progress, you treat people like humans.

We’re all one city.

Rebecca Rhynhart
After a summer that included shootings on South Street, in subway stations, and at the Fashion District mall, many will be calling for additional investment in ensuring safety in our city’s economic hub. How can we balance the need for a safe Center City while not leaving neighborhoods behind?
Rhynhart: Make every neighborhood safe

We’re all one city and I think all of our neighborhoods are important. I have been to neighborhoods across the city and people do not feel safe. We have to make every neighborhood safe. So I don’t think it is an either-or decision. As controller, my office found that out of a little under 6,000 officers, only 2,500 are out on patrol. We need to implement civilianization to move officers from desk to patrols so there are more officers available.

Brown: Deploy resources better

When you have limited resources, and will always have limited resources, you have to focus on where the problems are. It doesn’t matter if the problem is in Center City or the neighborhoods. If it is a problem, it is a problem. We don’t have the resources to do our job, and we’ve been very inflexible on how we get there. If we had proper police staffing levels, and we invested in technology, we could better deploy resources to address those problems.

Philadelphia is missing its police recruitment goals by about 1,300 officers. How would you change this, as mayor?
Rhynhart: Listen to community needs

This is an issue that’s impacting departments across the country. Recruitment was a problem before 2020, and it’s become an even bigger problem since the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder and the resulting movement against police. I think we need to be creative. We’ve seen other places do it. Washington, D.C. is advertising here. We need police to provide public safety. And at the same time, we should be revamping the department with community input.

If we do that, staffing each district based on what the community needs, instead of the perceived need, that will help with recruiting. If the department is providing the policing that residents in that community want there, that will build trust. People will want to become police officers more than they do today.

Brown: Streamline the hiring process

The civil service code and the whole process of hiring new employees is very cumbersome. I understand that to onboard a new employee takes a whole year. I run a business, it takes us less than a week. In a competitive job market, we’re not nimble enough to keep our city staff.

We also use testing in an inappropriate way. Here’s an example: There’s a question on the police exam, “Do you live with a felon?” In Philadelphia, lots of people live with felons. People get eliminated in an unrealistic way. I have 500 returning citizens working for me, I would not pass that policing exam. I think it is unrealistic and needs to be reexamined.