This time last year, Philadelphia was on fire.
Thousands of Philadelphians poured into the streets to demand that Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. People all over the country had just watched in horror as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds. The video reignited the pain of decades of systemic racism and police brutality in Philadelphia — pain that city officials admitted to have tragically underestimated.
The protesters in Philadelphia’s streets, who were shot with tear gas and rubber bullets, demanded big, systemic change that would fundamentally change the role of police in our city. For a moment, it seemed as if those in power at the federal, state, and local levels were listening.
But looking at what actually changed in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, as well as around the country, the sad conclusion is that one year later, largely, that response to the demand for systemic change has fallen short.
Intent doesn’t equal results
There has been some change. Gov. Tom Wolf signed bills into law to create a statewide database of police misconduct (a compromise to get police union support that stopped short of making police records available to the public) and require annual training on de-escalation and use of force. Philadelphia established a new Citizens Police Oversight Commission (to be set up this year), banned chokeholds, required a public hearing on the contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, and reinstated a one-year residency requirement for new officers.
Yet these reforms are largely procedural, and having the intent to reform doesn’t change the results. Police in Philadelphia have no less power and no fewer duties or resources than they had one year ago.
Amid cries of activists to “defund the police,” the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget remained largely the same — and the only reason Mayor Jim Kenney was able to avoid a budget increase is by placing some police expenses in the managing director’s budget. The plan to add behavioral health crisis intervention response teams and civilian officers to deal with traffic comes in addition to the existing police budget, not instead.
According to Udi Ofer, head of the ACLU’s Justice Division, the experience of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania is on par with the rest of the country. While about half of all states passed some form of reform, the reality of policing didn’t dramatically change on the ground. In Pennsylvania, only two of the 19 priorities identified by the Legislative Black Caucus have been adopted. Across the country, nearly 1,000 people were shot and killed by police in the year since Floyd was murdered — just like the year before.
Where significant reform was accomplished, it was done on the local level. Brooklyn Center, Minn., just outside of Minneapolis, was rocked in April when a police officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old unarmed Black man, during a traffic stop. The local mayor and City Council swiftly passed significant reform: delegating most traffic-violation enforcement to a new civilian traffic enforcement department, dispatching medical and mental health professionals instead of police for crisis intervention, and prohibiting arrest in certain situations for traffic and non-felony offenses.
Unlike procedural reforms, the policies implemented at Brooklyn Center fundamentally change the way policing works. Had these efforts been in place a few weeks earlier, Daunte Wright would likely be alive today.
Handcuffed by the FOP
One reason for the difficulty to pass more sweeping reform is the national increase in gun violence, making people more timid to experiment with non-law enforcement responses.
But the bigger, more systemic issue is police unions.
State Rep. Donna Bullock, a North Philadelphia Democrat, has been working to stitch together a coalition to reform Act 111 — the law that governs police collective bargaining. Without reform to Act 111, discussions about whether Philadelphia should defund the police, send someone besides police to respond to a 911 call, or any other reform is moot if the Fraternal Order of Police doesn’t give its blessing. When Philadelphia pushed for more body cameras, the FOP demanded accountability bonuses. When City Council passed a law requiring a public hearing as part of the contract process, the FOP sued based on Act 111. Without reform to Act 111, Philadelphia’s attempts at police reform are handcuffed.
Beyond reforming Act 111, it is time to erect alternative systems for policing. When some people hear “defund the police” they fear that there will be no one to call in an emergency. Building and evaluating alternatives to policing to respond to mental health crises or traffic infractions won’t only function as a proof of concept but will show what else is possible. Similarly, keeping an eye on how reform progresses in places like Brooklyn Center, learning from that experience, and telling a positive story of change is critical.
Some Brooklyn Center-type reforms have been discussed in Philadelphia. At-Large Councilmember Isaiah Thomas has proposed to end certain traffic stops, the type of over-policing that leads to brutality. City Council is pressing the administration to move forward with unarmed traffic officers. The city is also deploying a team of co-responders alongside police officers for calls that may involve mental health issues — though not instead of armed officers as in Brooklyn Center.
These initiatives are all worthwhile steps, but they fall short of the radical rethinking of policing demanded by George Floyd’s death. When Philadelphians braved tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons to protest Floyd’s death and demand reform in the middle of a pandemic, they were not looking for minor procedural reforms — they were looking for a new model of public safety. One where police are asked to solve fewer social problems and held accountable for crimes committed while in uniform. A year after George Floyd’s death, we still aren’t much closer to achieving it.