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February 17, 2023

Proposed public safety director would oversee Philly's gun violence response

City councilmembers want to create a new cabinet-level position modeled after those in Chicago, Newark and Columbus

Government Public Safety
Public Safety Director Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

A proposed public safety director position in Philadelphia would coordinate the deployment of resources within the city's police, fire, prisons, recreation and emergency services departments.

In an effort to reduce violent crime in Philadelphia, some city councilmembers want to create a new government office to oversee public safety. 

resolution introduced Thursday would establish the Office of Chief Public Safety Director – if passed by City Council and approved by voters on a ballot referendum. The director, a cabinet-level position, would be responsible for coordinating the deployment of resources within the city's police, fire, prisons, recreation and emergency services departments. 

The position is modeled after those created by several cities, including Chicago, Illinois; Newark, New Jersey; and Columbus, Ohio.

"We know we need better coordination and collaboration in how Philadelphia departments and agencies respond to gun violence," City Council President Darrell Clarke said. "A chief public safety officer — whose chief responsibilities include fostering collaborations among all agencies in our city — is a policy initiative well worth trying." 

The public safety director would guide city agencies through safety-related polices and provide budget consulting. The position would oversee security in city-owned buildings and develop security contracts for the city and School District of Philadelphia. 

The director also would maintain relationships with civic organizations, businesses, schools, court offices and emergency services in other jurisdictions. The high-level position would be on par with the city finance director and managing director. 

Before crafting the resolution, councilmembers took several trips to observe the ways that other cities are grappling with gun violence. 

A delegation visited Trenton, New Jersey, which has seen a significant reduction in gun violence over the last year. The delegation found that local agencies worked closely together to coordinate the city's response to violence, Clarke said.

Newark adopted a similar position in 2016 to oversee a public safety department that merged its police, fire and emergency services. 

Fritz Fragé, a retired New Jersey State Police commander, took over the existing post last August as Newark was facing an 8% uptick in overall crime. Though robberies and auto-related thefts were on the rise, rapes, homicides and non-fatal shootings remained low, reported. 

In Chicago, Anastasia Walker, executive director of the city's Office of Public Safety Administration, is responsible for sharing resources among the city's governmental agencies, finding ways to reduce costs, improve functions, leverage technological solutions and identify ways the city can improve its public safety response collaboratively. 

Chicago officials implemented the office in 2020 after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the launch of the new office, Mayor Lori Lightfoot also worked to reorganize the city's public safety response by putting more sworn officers and fire personnel on the streets and closer to their communities. 

Columbus appointed Robert Clark to be the city's director of public safety in 2021 following the retirement of the previous director. A former police officer for 35 years, Clark lost his own father to gun violence when he was 13. In his position, Clark has been tasked with addressing the lack of public service training and evaluating 911 calls to see whether a police officer or mental health professional is the best person to respond.

Much like in Chicago, the implementation of the public safety director came with a promise to hire 170 new police officers and 125 new firefighters. As of October 2021, Columbus' homicide rate had decreased by 63%, Spectrum News reported. 

"We should be treating gun violence in our neighborhoods in the way that we're treating COVID, in the sense that we're mobilizing all the resources we have," Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents West Philadelphia, told the Inquirer. "If we're only thinking about gun violence as a police enforcement issue, we are losing the ability to bring so many more resources to the table." 

The legislation is co-sponsored by Clarke, Curtis Jones Jr. and Kenyatta Johnson. If passed and signed by Mayor Jim Kenney, it would require a change to the city's Home Rule Charter, a document that defines the power and structure of city government. That change must be approved on a ballot referendum. 

The ballot referendum could occur later this year, with the incoming mayor potentially filling the position in 2024. The appointee would be required to have at least five years experience as head of a municipal or state law enforcement agency, according to the resolution. 

The legislation comes as Philadelphia's mayoral election is getting underway, with 88 days until the May 16 primary election. The race is crowded, with 11 candidates in the running. On Monday, former Councilmember David Oh resigned to run for mayor, becoming the sole Republican in the race. 

The person who eventually succeeds Kenney will be tasked with improving the city's response to crime and gun violence. Though homicides dropped by 8% in 2022, they were falling from the record-high 562 homicides recorded in 2021. And the number of non-fatal shootings remained steady.