Diversity, residency requirements top issues at Philly police budget hearing

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Amid ongoing contract negotiations between the city and its police union, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said Wednesday she supports a decade-old provision that permits officers to move out of the city after serving five years on the force.

Speaking at a budget hearing, Outlaw said the option doesn’t necessarily mean cops will become disconnected from the city they’re paid to police. Time on the job, she said, helps maintain that bond, as well as build institutional knowledge within the force — regardless of where an officer calls home.

“There has to be some consideration of the public servant because we have to consider the balance of our well-being as well,” Outlaw said. “We have to be able to unplug and turn it off at some point.”

Outlaw’s remarks come nearly a year after City Council almost unanimously passed a bill requiring all new city employees, including police officers, to live in Philadelphia for at least a year prior to joining the city’s payroll.

Proponents of the measure, part of a fast-tracked package of police reforms, argue it’s a simple way to put a finer point on the oath officers take to protect and serve Philadelphia residents, and help strengthen police-community relations.

City Council President Darrell Clarke, who was surprised by Outlaw’s response, said staying in Philadelphia after five years only helps bolster those goals, and also makes it more likely that the department reflects the racial demographics of the city.

“This whole ‘unplug’ thing I just don’t quite understand. Nobody is saying you should live in the sector that you patrol,” he said.

Clarke’s colleagues also had concerns about diversity within the department.

The force is nearly 60% white and roughly 30% Black, according to police. The city’s population is 44% Black and 34% white.

Deputy Commissioner Robin Wimberly said Wednesday the department is actively recruiting more officers of color. The campaign includes social media callouts, radio advertisements on WURD and WDAS, as well as virtual and in-person information sessions for potential hires.

The department also teamed up with Penn State University to develop a curriculum to prepare people for the required reading comprehension exam, she said. Additionally, three YMCAs in the city have agreed to offer boot camp-style workout classes to prepare applicants for the department’s physical agility test.

Both of those requirements have proven to be stumbling blocks, said Wimberly.

“Our intention is to meet our potential recruits where they are, and support them through the process to build a police department that is reflective of the community that we serve,” she said.

The department started accepting applications May 1. The window closes May 31.

The roughly 6,300-member force currently has more than 240 vacancies.

Over the course of nearly four hours, police brass also provided updates regarding body cameras and Tasers. They also touched on clearance rates and discussed a 911 co-responder program designed to better identify and respond to calls that have a mental health component.

In the wake of the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia last October, the department is “aggressively rolling out” bodycams, which supporters say help promote police accountability and build public trust. Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter said the goal is to have all 4,500 patrol officers outfitted with the cameras by the end of this year.

“We are moving them out as quickly as we can,” she said.

More than half of all patrol officers are currently equipped with Tasers, said Coulter, adding that the department is still on the hunt for funding to maintain a five-year, $14 million plan to outfit them all with the less-lethal devices.

After equipping officers with Tasers, the department plans to have all of them complete a Crisis Intervention Team training program, which is designed to teach officers how to respond to residents with mental health or substance use disorders.

There is currently no timetable for outfitting all Philadelphia patrol officers with Tasers.

“The time period is when we have them available,” Coulter said.

If passed, Mayor Jim Kenney’s latest budget proposal would effectively flat-fund the Philadelphia Police Department at $727 million. The total represents a 2.4% decrease in police funding as a share of the city’s general operating budget compared to 2016, according to the Kenney administration.

At the same time, Mayor Kenney has proposed an additional $19 million for anti-violence efforts designed to stop shootings from happening in the first place.

Philadelphia is experiencing a historic surge in gun violence, putting the city on pace to set a new single-year record for homicides. This after a nearly record-setting 2020.

Police have struggled to make arrests for murders and non-fatal shootings, with clearance rates of 45% and 13%, respectively.

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