An ambiguous plan to ease Philadelphia’s congestion woes gained some clarity in Mayor Jim Kenney’s first budget proposal of his second term.
The proposal looks to add $1.9 million to the Police Department budget to create a public safety enforcement officer program, said city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco, and comes months after city residents overwhelmingly approved a traffic-related ballot question during last May’s primary.
Kenney delivered his $5.2 billion spending plan to City Council on Thursday. It includes major investment in education, a commitment to reduce gun violence, and expansion of residential street sweeping.
At Thursday’s address, Kenney touted plans to invest $240 million in paving over six years; a $9 million investment over six years in Vision Zero, the city’s safe streets initiative; and $4.7 million that would support SEPTA.
The public safety enforcement officer program, he said, will focus on traffic issues and “help ensure more police officers are where we need them most, in neighborhoods preventing violent crime.”
According to proposed guidelines from the Managing Director’s Office, these new “boots-on-the ground” officers would be tasked with patrolling designated areas, monitoring “high-need intersections” in Center City, and enforcing parking regulations such as illegal double parking and blockage of bikes lanes and crosswalks, as well as educating drivers.
Staffing for the program would include a lieutenant as well as an office clerk. Each shift — a morning rotation from 5:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m., and an evening rotation from 12:30 until 8:30 p.m. — would have two radio dispatchers, a supervisor, and 10 public safety enforcement officers wearing a version of a police uniform.
The officers would not have arrest powers but would be able to issue citations, pending Council approval. The lieutenant would be the only sworn and armed officer.
In addition to patrolling designated areas, officers would staff problematic intersections in Center City on weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.
“The goal of putting these new type of officers on the street is to increase safety and change behavior,” Cofrancisco said. “It is not to collect fines.”
The program would be operated by the Police Department and be based in Center City. It was not clear whether the group would be used outside of that area.
In May, voters were asked whether the City Charter should be amended to create “public safety enforcement officers” that would help police regulate the flow of traffic and other quality of life concerns.
While the idea resonated with voters, it wasn’t without opposition. The police union had said giving duties to non-sworn personnel is illegal in the commonwealth and vowed to bring the matter to the state labor board.
“Our position remains the same, that we believe this work is reserved for sworn police officers and law enforcement,” Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 spokesperson Mike Neilon said Thursday. The union reserves the right to take the matter to the state board if a resolution can’t be reached, he said.
In its support of the new enforcement officers, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia did express concern about potential racial bias during a testimony to Council.
Former City Councilmember Al Taubenberger voted against putting the question on the ballot.
“They should have the power of arrest if necessary; they should be trained in firearms,” Taubenberger said in May. “This is where danger occurs with police officers.”
The city is struggling with congestion, as e-commerce deliveries, a growing population, and ridesharing all compete for a space on Philadelphia’s crowded streets. Walking, too, can be faster than taking a bus for those able — a factor that played a role in a 2018 pilot where Philadelphia police where used to ease traffic congestion.
In remarks earlier this year, Kenney voiced support of the planned redesign of SEPTA’s bus routes. His remarks gained SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards’ attention. She said she looks forward to working with the administration as she tackles issues like congestion.