With a reexamination of criminal justice, including policing, across the country and the city’s rising homicide rate, to say nothing of a police department roiled by scandals — one of which led to the downfall of Police Commissioner Richard Ross — it’s safe to say that few positions in this city can impact the lives of all Philadelphians more than the person who leads the police.
The Mayor’s Office says it’s on pace to appoint a commissioner by the end of 2019. Presumably, that means the city is well into the selection process of narrowing the field. We’ll have to presume because the process has been shrouded in secrecy.
That secrecy did not prevent a viral public feud about the city’s priorities in selecting Philly’s top cop. Last week, the president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, John McNesby, lashed out at Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins. A cofounder of the criminal justice nonprofit Players Coalition, Jenkins hosted a town hall in October about the next commissioner. During the event, which included a panel of prominent Philadelphians, such as rapper Meek Mill and the Rev. Leslie D. Callahan of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, Jenkins passed the microphone to Philadelphians to express what they hope the next commissioner will focus on. Jenkins then wrote an opinion piece for The Inquirer summarizing themes that he heard from the audience.
In a social media post, McNesby called Jenkins’ op-ed a “racist attack” and argued that the suggestions — which centered on changing the culture of the police and the way they interact with communities — would make Philadelphia less safe. (An assertion that multiple studies on reform efforts dispel.)
Given the critical role of the police both in public safety and in criminal justice reform, the FOP and the mayor should heed these concerns — especially from black and brown Philadelphians with whom police are more likely to interact. The fact is Jenkins has done more to bring the general public into the discussion about the next commissioner than McNesby or the city itself.
In September, the city launched an online survey to get feedback from Philadelphians. According to the Mayor’s Office, they’ve received about 4,000 responses that were used to inform interview questions. Those responses have not been made public, though they should. Managing Director Brian Abernathy participated in Jenkins’ forum, but the city says that the event did not alter its process.
The police are not just like any department. Their ability to suspend civil rights and use force demands extra scrutiny.
The city has to protect the identities of job candidates. However, the city could give more concrete updates without jeopardizing the process. Has the city created guidelines for hiring? Who is on the hiring panel? Have any candidates been identified?
Jenkins’ event was packed. So was the City Council hearing about the police in September. That should signal to the administration that people in Philadelphia want to be involved in the process. By engaging the public in the process, the city could also set the next commissioner for success by building trust even before they start the job.