Although nationwide protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, have largely stopped, addressing systemic racism and improving the relationship between the police and the communities they serve remain critical even as the spotlight dims. This is especially true in Philadelphia, where the homicide rate is rising.
Public commitments were made by the Philadelphia Police Department, and communities of color wondered if these commitments would be kept. Keeping them is key because, among other things, addressing police reform is an integral part of gun-violence prevention.
When individuals experience police discrimination or brutality, they are less likely to trust or rely on law enforcement. Consequently, these community members are less likely to cooperate with law enforcement, which includes not reporting crimes or serving as witnesses in investigations. Unfortunately, some turn to retaliatory violence, which can increase crime.
For a city in the midst of a gun-violence epidemic, empty promises from officials are deadly, not only for the individuals affected by police violence but also for Philadelphians who are suffering from a 40% increase in firearms homicides in comparison with 2018, which may be intimately tied to a lack of police legitimacy.
Locally, Walter Wallace Jr.’s killing by law enforcement brought the conversation of police reform back into the forefront for many Philadelphians after this summer’s protests. Many wondered if the last five months of marches, peaceful protests, advocacy, policy proposals, and negotiations had changed anything. When local leaders said they were committed to reform, and committed to investment in impacted communities, did they actually mean it? Or was it merely lip service?
A Philadelphia Police Department news conference after Wallace’s death signaled to many that the previous commitments had been simply lip service, as best practices for community-centered policing still had not been developed and enacted by city leaders. There was no substantive progress in ensuring Crisis Response Teams, which provide supportive services to victims and their families, were readily available to assist officers whenever necessary, as in the case with Wallace. Not all officers have received Tasers or been properly trained in how to use them, nor have they undergone de-escalation training — all of which could have saved Wallace’s life. Since his death, Commissioner Outlaw shared that the Police Department will create a behavioral health unit to respond to individuals having mental health crises. However, some community stakeholders are still skeptical of these promises, given the city’s track record in addressing issues of gun violence and police brutality in Black and brown communities.
Addressing police legitimacy — building trust between police and the communities they serve — without a long-term commitment will not yield actual progress, and we will always be stuck applying a bandage to an ever-growing wound.
Philadelphia’s leaders know what needs to be done. They have an extensive blueprint to address gun violence and police legitimacy, but seem to lack the necessary, ongoing commitment once news cameras leave. In 2019, the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention released the Philadelphia Roadmap for Safer Communities, a 32-page report on how the city plans to address gun violence using a public health framework, but has not shown how it has been implemented with any success. Meanwhile, gun violence has hit an all-time high with, as of Dec. 2, 457 homicides in 2020, a 39% increase from this time in 2018. Despite this crisis, the city has not taken the action steps listed in its plan, such as “fully engag[ing] neighborhood residents in planning and implementation of the City’s violence reduction work’' or “creat[ing] opportunities for community feedback on the overall violence reduction strategy and City supported programs.”
Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia’s then-police commissioner, served as cochair of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, developed after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old in Missouri. Yet in 2020, the city operates as if they are starting from scratch.
One recommendation from the task force’s report is that “law enforcement agencies should have clear and comprehensive policies on the use of force (including training on the importance of de-escalation), mass demonstrations (including the appropriate use of equipment, particularly rifles and armored personnel carriers).” Given the Philadelphia police’s response to protesters during social unrest this summer and the actions leading to the killing of Walter Wallace Jr., it is clear the city is not using the evidence-based solutions available to them.
To address the ongoing public health issues of gun violence and police brutality fueled by systemic racism, we need leaders at all levels of government to use the resources at their disposal to save the lives of the most vulnerable. There is no coincidence that in cities like Philadelphia, Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by the tragic combination of gun violence, COVID-19, and police brutality. When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean they must matter in the budget and policy conversations that directly impact Black lives. Communities deserve ongoing transparency and accountability when addressing public safety, with tangible goals, measurable outcomes, and ongoing community engagement and input. Philadelphia has a roadmap. Its leaders just need to use it.