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Philly to explore using civilian traffic cops to unjam the streets

City Council's president is introducing a resolution to explore the possibility of civilian traffic enforcement in Philadelphia.

Pedestrians are forced to walk between cars that overshot their green light and block the intersection at 16th and Chestnut Streets.
Pedestrians are forced to walk between cars that overshot their green light and block the intersection at 16th and Chestnut Streets.Read moreMichael Bryant

City Council will consider creating civilian traffic enforcement officers to unsnarl the logjams plaguing Philadelphia's busiest streets.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke planned to introduce a resolution Thursday morning that would call for hearings exploring what civilian enforcement could do, and how the positions could be created. The resolution cites New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Washington as municipalities that have turned to civilian employees to manage traffic.

"At some point, you've got to deal with it," Clarke said Wednesday night. "People are complaining all over the city about traffic."

Clarke said he has been interested in bringing public safety enforcement officers to the city for a decade. The civilian officers could issue traffic citations, he said, but would not carry firearms or have the ability to make arrests. They would, though, allow the city to address traffic issues without diverting sworn officers from criminal investigations and enforcement.

The mayor's office, which has been pursuing a safer-streets initiative, declined to comment Wednesday.

Administration officials said on background that they will participate in hearings, but that creating a new civil service class of positions would be challenging, and there would have to be coordination with the relevant unions, including the Fraternal Order of Police.

John McNesby, president of the city's FOP chapter, did not return a call Wednesday night.

Clarke envisioned the officers being hired through the Police Department, though he said it was too soon to know whether that approach would require additional money.

Clarke expects to bring experts from other cities to talk about the best approach to civilian traffic enforcement.

"We need to take a look at all of these particular municipalities to see what makes sense for the city of Philadelphia," he said.

On a typical weeknight, Center City's streets are clogged with cars navigating alongside people on foot and bikes. Truck deliveries in the city and the growth of Uber and Lyft mean more vehicles blocking travel lanes. Along with being frustrating, congestion is dangerous. Stretches of Walnut and Chestnut Streets in Center City were among those included in a city survey of streets where many of the city's serious traffic-related injuries happen.

Philadelphia's safe streets strategy will likely add red-light cameras to some intersections, and city officials have said they are hopeful that bills allowing the use of speed cameras and radar guns pass the Pennsylvania legislature. Technology, officials said Wednesday, might eventually make a new class of enforcement officers redundant.

The Police Department said last week that some of an additional 370 police officers expected to be added to the force by September would be devoted to traffic enforcement issues, and city officials have said there is likely a role for some sort of manned traffic enforcement.

In New York, increased manned traffic enforcement has coincided with a reduction in traffic deaths each year for the last four years, said Jon Orcutt, communications director for the New York philanthropic organization TransitCenter. That may be more due to street redesign and red light cameras than to manned enforcement, which he said tends to crack down more on cyclists than motorists.

Any enforcement in Philadelphia would likely focus on drivers' misbehavior, officials have said, as cars are inherently more likely to cause serious injuries than a person on a bicycle.