Philadelphia is at a crossroads as it decides how to address soaring gun violence and the ever-present police abuse. Among other measures, City Council is currently considering a proposal to dramatically expand civilian oversight of the police. This proposal must pass. Negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police are ongoing over the police union contract that has historically protected officers who cause harm. Council is also evaluating a bill to ban the traffic stops disproportionately conducted against Black people as pretext to search a car. City Council will now debate whether to expand the violence prevention funding earmarked by the mayor in his budget.
Issues of gun violence and police abuse are inextricably linked, and we treat them separately at our peril. The same Black and brown communities are impacted most heavily by both; how law enforcement treats people of color directly affects safety. When people believe law enforcement is above the law, they are unlikely to rely on them for protection, to serve as witnesses, or even to report crime. When the only solution to mitigating hot spots of violence is to add more policing, more stops, more vehicle searches, we do not see long-term improvements. We must change how policing occurs in this city.
Passing the police oversight bill is a critical place to start mitigating the harms of both problems. The legislation put forward by Councilmember Curtis Jones would establish the most robust board in the country. Full-time employees with experience investigating police misconduct would staff it. They would have subpoena power and access to investigative materials and electronic police files and records — all prerequisites for a successful investigation. The commission would issue disciplinary recommendations, and the police commissioner would have to publicly respond to her disciplinary decisions. The commission would investigate patterns of police misconduct, and it would issue a yearly report.
What we cannot do is allow policing to occur in the darkness and permit the department to set the narrative on what communities need to be safe while not actually reducing violence.
Opponents claim that placing restrictions on policing or implementing oversight is inconsistent with protecting public safety, but the opposite is true. We are now seeing the disastrous effects of decades of police abuse in this city.
This is a city where a recent study exposed racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic social media posts by over 300 different officers. In Philadelphia, police stopped and frisked Black people at an alarming rate. When a court ordered them to stop, PPD just ramped up car stops of Black people for driving while Black — a deliberate ploy to get around limitations on stop-and-frisk. Police increased pretextual stops, pulling people over for minor infractions like tinted windows or making an illegal turn, and then used that opportunity to search the car. Black people made up 72% of all car stops between 2018-2019, and police kept at them even though they found contraband in less than 1% of cases. A recent audit revealed that police used tear gas on peaceful protesters during the George Floyd protests. It was not until the current district attorney took office that there has been any meaningful attempt to hold police accountable, even as police coerced confessions and sent innocent people to death row.
It is no surprise, then, that people of color often do not trust the police, and the effects of this are serious. Philadelphia police make arrests in just 20% of shooting cases, and in the first two months of 2021, the police cleared just 26% of homicides. A person who commits a violent crime in this city is far more likely to continue walking the streets than to be placed under arrest. Part of the reason for this dismal solve rate is that people who do not believe law enforcement will protect them or treat them fairly do not see any reason to cooperate.
Meaningful civilian oversight can lead to more transparency, more accountability, and in the end, increased trust and safety. It’s not the only thing we need to keep Philadelphia healthy, but it is an easy first start, a no-brainer really. Everyone should be in favor of accountability and transparency; rejecting this bill suggests we have something to hide. We urge City Council to pass this robust proposal immediately and then move on to the other critical tasks at hand.
Malcolm Jenkins, a former Eagle, is an activist, entrepreneur, New Orleans Saints safety, and cofounder of Players Coalition, a social justice nonprofit. Natasha Cloud, a Broomall native, is a professional basketball player for the Washington Mystics of the Women’s National Basketball Association and an advocate for racial equality.