City Council wants to have it both ways with Philly police: a department that does more, works more effectively, and costs less. After a year of calls to “defund the police” and a continued surge in gun violence, Council, the mayor, and the department are stuck in a complicated moment, where they face changing the entrenched culture of Philly’s police force amid the city’s urgent and unrelenting public safety needs.
For several hours on Wednesday, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and her top deputies answered questions from Council members requesting more resources, more hiring, more equipment, and more programs, while mostly ignoring the question of what programs and practices are ineffective and should be done less.
Councilmember Helen Gym wants changes to dispatching. Councilmembers Cherelle L. Parker and Isaiah Thomas raised concerns about the capacity of the department to answer 911 calls. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier wants abandoned cars off the streets. Councilmembers Derek Green and Allan Domb want the department to look into using drone technology. Councilmember David Oh wants more cops on the street. And everyone wants officers trained in crisis intervention and equipped with Tasers and body cameras. Multiple Council members also raised concerns over the Police Department’s low clearance rate. Currently, only 45% of homicides and 13% of nonfatal shootings result in arrest. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson expressed his support for bolstering the homicide unit.
All of these might be worthwhile initiatives, but all of them require more money over the short and long term. That’s going to complicate Council’s — and Mayor Jim Kenney’s — stated intention not to increase the police budget.
To avoid the appearance of increasing the police budget, Kenney included several police budget items in the Managing Director’s Office budget. That includes $6 million to pair officers with behavioral health specialists and $750,000 to pay for training to help officers “make positive decision making.”
These moves might be well-intentioned, but they diminish transparency in an important public debate on policing, leaving the impression that there are no hard choices involved.
If Philadelphia wants to maintain police funding at current levels, while also responding to the current crisis of gun violence in the city and improve the trust between police and the community, the budget hearing should have centered on which police practices should be eliminated. Councilmember Kendra Brooks asked directly how much time police saved by reducing the number of quality-of-life stop-and-frisks. There was no answer. Council President Darrell L. Clarke got close to the issue when discussing abandoned vehicles, reminding Outlaw that it is a task that public safety and traffic officers could do.
If the Kenney administration and police leadership are going to successfully reconcile their competing objectives, they must find ways for the Police Department to do less. One place to start is ending time-consuming and discriminatory practices like stop-and-frisk and traffic stops.
Philadelphia needs effective, transparent, more focused policing. The city is facing an epidemic of violence, with shocking numbers of our people shot and killed on a near-daily basis. Philadelphia cannot solve this crisis until Council and the Police Department accept what needs to be done, including what currently is not working and needs to stop.