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June 09, 2020

Philadelphia pledges major police reform, eliminates department's proposed budget increase

City officials outline agenda to strengthen accountability in law enforcement

Police Reform
Philly council defund police Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia officials announced a police reform agenda that seeks to enhance transparency and accountability in the department following civil unrest across the country.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney vowed to reform critical aspects of the Philadelphia Police Department, announcing plans Tuesday to increase police accountability in the wake of civil unrest across the city. 

In response to more than 10 days of protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Kenney said the city's experience has been "humbling" and requires a commitment to make significant changes. 

“We saw the hurt and frustration of black Americans — and their allies — on full display. Here at home and across the country, communities gathered to proclaim a simple but powerful truth: Black Lives Matter," Kenney said in a statement. “I stand with those who have taken to the streets of Philadelphia to express their outrage and demand changes to policing."

A Police Reform Working Group established by the city has identified numerous objectives to pursue in the months ahead, including the removal of a proposed $14 million increase to the police department's budget next year. 

The planned reform includes an immediate update to the department's use of force policy, including when and how a firearm can be unholstered and pointed. The policy also will include mandates for reporting on these incidents. 

Under the new use of force protocol, officers will be explicitly prohibited from sitting or kneeling on a person’s neck, face or head, in addition to already illegal chokeholds. 

City officials also pledged to create an independent Police Oversight Commission that will be empowered to review civilian complaints and use-of-force incidents. There also will be increased transparency of complaints against police officers in the Internal Affairs division. 

"I envision offering a quarterly report of types of allegations we receive, findings, dispositions and really just giving an update on where we lie," Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said. "Hopefully, we can get to a place where we can drill that down by district and by specific regions in the city."

Identification of specific officers involved in complaints will be handled on a case-by-case basis, Outlaw added. 

Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the Police Oversight Commission is expected to become the successor to the existing Police Advisory Commission. The PAC currently handles complaints against officers, issues public reports, reviews department policies and holds public meetings to facilitate the relationship between police and the community. 

As part of a department's reform, new staff positions will focus on misconduct, brutality, equity, diversity and other relevant issues. 

A revamped early warning system will be developed to track indicators of misconduct and flag problematic officer behavior, expanding and improving a previous system, City Solicitor Marcel Pratt said.

Outlaw said the department currently does not have an effective way to ensure that officers' records follow them through reassignments. 

"A good, strong first step is making sure that we have a mechanism in place internally to identify at-risk behavior," Outlaw said. "As it stands, if there's a problem officer that gets transferred somewhere else, we don't have a mechanism in place to go back and review all of their previous history and for that supervisor to know what they're inheriting." 

Kenney said some of these reforms are already underway and others are expected to be implemented in the near future. 

“Our approach to these commitments was informed by elected officials — at the city and state levels — who put forth a proposed set of reforms," Kenney said. "We thank them for their leadership and look forward to working with them and other members of our communities to institute meaningful change for our city." 

The city also plans to revise protocols for collective bargaining with Philadelphia's police union, making the process more transparent and giving greater discretion to the police commissioner for officer discipline and reassignment. Arbitration updates of this nature will require legislation at the state level and could take longer to enact, Kenney said. 

City officials have requested Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf form a civil unrest damage recovery fund to help business and property owners impacted by looting and rioting. 

They also called on Wolf to create a Deputy State Inspector General whose office would focus on deterring, detecting, preventing and eradicating misconduct, brutality, waste, fraud and abuse within law enforcement agencies. 

Tuesday's announcement came after the vast majority of City Council signed a letter on Monday urging the mayor to scrap the proposed increase to the police department budget. The letter also called for several police reform measures to enacted.

"Philadelphia can't breathe," the letter stated, paying homage Floyd's last words that have been repeated at protests across the country. "In the poorest big city in America, during a global health crisis and a massive economic crisis, the people of our city are telling us that police reform cannot wait."

The police department has increased funding by roughly $120 million every year since 2016 and accounts for a sixth of the annual budget, the letter noted. 

In April, Kenney announced deep cuts for the upcoming fiscal year after the coronavirus pandemic left a $649 million hole in the city budget. Despite these challenges, proposed spending for the police department was increased. 

"It is counterproductive to increase spending on the police department while cutting spending on public health, housing, social services, violence prevention, youth programs, libraries, parks, recreation centers and the arts," the council members' letter said. 

Protesters across the country have called for cities to defund their police departments and allocate those funds to build stronger community programs in low-income neighborhoods. Minneapolis City Council recently announced plans to dissolve the police department and rebuild with a new community-supported model.  

The letter from City Council also called for the department to end "stop and frisk," a controversial police tactic that allows officers to detain and search suspects on the streets.

The letter was signed by 14 council members. Only Democrat Bobby Henon and Republicans David Oh and Brian O'Neill did not sign the letter.

The mayor's proposed budget increase had included anti-racist training and body cameras, according to a statement by the mayor's office. It also would have increased salaries for officers and created more jobs for the intelligence bureau and public safety officers, who help regulate traffic.

Kenney said Tuesday that some resources will be needed to implement the proposed police reforms, but declined to say where the previously earmarked $14 million will be reallocated. 

The mayor lamented the city's surging homicide rate, which has served as a backdrop to civil unrest and the financial limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

"The frustration with this whole thing is that the financial condition we were in when we started this whole process allowed us to make substantial investments in job creation, job training, education  — the things that will really drive down our homicide and shooting rate." 

City council was scheduled to hold a virtual budget hearing with residents on Tuesday. Additionally, it will listen to testimony from police department officials on Wednesday. The deadline to approve the budget for the 2021 fiscal year is June 30. 

Kenney reiterated that police reform is just one piece of the financial crisis the city now faces. 

"You can police your way out of some of this stuff. You can't police your way out of all of it," Kenney said. "Unless we're making investments in uplifting the lives of people who live in neighborhoods that are suffering and struggling, unless we have the kind of investments that we wanted to make at the beginning of this budget process ... we're going to have a rough couple years."