Mayor Kenney walks back police budget boost and vows reforms — but not enough, critics say

Protesters at the Pennsylvania Convention Center urge police to ‘take a knee in solidarity' on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Protesters at the Pennsylvania Convention Center urge police to ‘take a knee in solidarity' on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Following nearly two weeks of protest and civil unrest, Mayor Jim Kenney has revealed his plan to reform the city’s scandal-plagued police department.

The most notable changes: Kenney is rescinding his proposed $19 million increase to the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget — which became a rallying point for advocates in the wake of George Floyd’s killing — and creating an improved and independent civilian oversight board to replace the Police Advisory Commission. Kenney’s prior budget had proposed a significant cut to the oversight commission.

Kenney acknowledged he faced a veto-proof majority on City Council, with 14 of 17 members expressing opposition to the police budget in a Monday letter. And in a prepared statement, the mayor seemed to accept criticism aimed at his administration by demonstrators who have called for the reform or even wholesale elimination of the PPD during days of protests.

“This has been a humbling experience for me and members of my administration. Many of us have realized that, as progressive and inclusive as we think we are, we still have a lot to learn,” Mayor Kenney said. “This moment is a beginning.”

The mayor called for a barrage of other changes.

Under the proposal, the police will formally update use of force policies and employ new technology to upgrade an “early warning system” designed to flag problem officers. Although the city has technically had such a system for decades, it was dubiously utilized –– newly-installed PPD Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she didn’t even know the system already existed.

Additionally, Internal Affairs will be required to generate quarterly reports on investigations and misconduct charges, while endeavoring to generally increase transparency. The city will also create new internal positions to monitor brutality and diversity issues within the department.

The city also proposed renegotiating the city’s Fraternal Order of Police union contract — oft-criticized for shielding bad cops — to win disciplinary reforms and reestablish a residency requirement for officers that was weakened in the past.  The renegotiation would not happen immediately, but rather over the next year.

Finally, the mayor proposed seeking legislative reforms in Harrisburg to increase police accountability.

But to critics like City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, the reforms are not enough.

Critics say reforms are vague, ‘a mixed bag’

To Brooks, the mayor’s proposed funding changes are a step in the right direction, but only a step. She noted they would only freeze the PPD’s budget at the $748 million it saw by the end of this fiscal year, still 30% more than when Kenney took office.

“Despite that increase, our communities are not much safer. My daughter is still burying friends each month,” the first-term councilmember said. “Police reforms in the short term are an important way of reducing the harm that has historically been done to communities of color. But re-envisioning policing as we know it must remain our long-term aim.”

David Rudovsky, a civil rights attorney who has sparred with the city over police accountability for decades, called the agenda “a mixed bag.”

“It’s all very vague, Maybe they can’t be more specific yet, but they have to eventually say exactly what they’re going to push for,” he said. “The city has a lot of control, a lot of power, be it funding or in negotiations with FOP.”

Rudovsky said the most critical need was a reform of Internal Affairs — which dismisses more than 9 out of 10 complaints of physical abuse made against police — and an overhaul of the union arbitration process. The latter process sees upwards of 75% of dismissed officers later reinstated. While the mayor’s agenda acknowledges both issues and indicates the city will request amendments to state law governing the arbitration process, the civil rights attorney said it was still unclear exactly how the city would change either system.

While the Kenney plan calls for the creation of “quarterly reports” on misconduct, it indicates the city will not proactively release names of officers subject to internal investigation or civilian complaints, rendering these reports virtually useless. Rudovsky said the process demands more transparency.

“We don’t need more studies or reports. We know what works,” he said. “They need to release this information.”

New York City has moved to release officers’ disciplinary records in the wake of protests, while other cities, like Chicago, long ago created a public database of complaints against police. But Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy said that, outside of specific press requests, the city would continue to anonymize these records.

“Officers are employees, and we’re trying to figure out how to balance their rights and the rights for transparency,” Abernathy told WHYY and Billy Penn.

Advocates behind local efforts to defund the police also shot back at efforts and called for greater transparency around officer complaints.

Nikki Grant, an attorney and a member of the Amistad Law Project, said the police department had little to show for the $120 million windfall it has received since Kenney took office. She pointed to the PPD’s homicide clearance rate, which has hovered around 50% in recent years, according to data provided by police to the federal government.

“There’s nothing to show for the amount of money they’ve got,” Grant said. “We need complete transparency, complete eyes on when the police are seeing — and that includes the names of officers involved in these incidents.”

A transition to a new police oversight commission

Kenney’s plan also includes the creation of the Police Oversight Commission, a permanent entity that would replace the long-standing Police Advisory Commission, which has performed a similar role since 1994.

The proposal comes less than a week after WHYY and Billy Penn reported the mayor’s plans to slash the existing commission’s budget by 18%.

It is not immediately evident how the new will differ from the old. As with the Police Advisory Commission, the proposed oversight entity would have subpoena power to investigate the police’s internal handling of civilian complaints and use-of-force incidents.

“The Police Oversight Commission would be a successor to the PAC,” said Managing Director Abernathy. “How that works has yet to be determined.”

The PAC was established in the 1990s as a reform measure under then-Mayor Ed Rendell. Since then, the commission has investigated hundreds of complaints against the police, but has long been kneecapped by funding constraints and limited cooperation from the police department.

Advocates called the oversight commission a promising start, but questioned the new entity’s ability to enact real change without significant reforms to the city’s police union contract or the Internal Affairs system.

“This goes beyond civilian complaints and review boards,” said Hiram Rivera, executive director for Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability, a national nonprofit that advocates for law enforcement reform.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Kenney indicated he would be willing to take the police union to court to win changes next year, if it comes to that.

“We’ll do what we have to do to get what we need,” Kenney said.

Yet another early warning system

Some proposed shifts raise questions about the city’s familiarity with its own past promises to reform a department that has long struggled to eradicate brutality and corruption.

For example, while Kenney called for the creation of an “early warning system” that would use software to rein in aggressive cops, the city has been required to do precisely that since a 1990s court case, NAACP vs. City of Philadelphia, which threatened class action litigation if the city didn’t implement police reform.

It’s unclear if this resulting early warning system, known as “IA-Pro,” had ever had impact. On Tuesday, Police Commissioner Outlaw, who was only recently sworn in, admitted she was unfamiliar with the program.

In some cases prior to Outlaw’s tenure, the existing early warning system appears to have been ignored. News reports found several officers accrued more than three civilian complaints in a single year — a red flag, by the warning system’s own metric. But those offenders saw little disciplinary intervention.

City Solicitor Marcel Pratt clarified that Kenney’s new agenda would seek to strengthen the system’s use. “We’re talking about building upon and improving that system,” he said about IA-Pro.

Rudovsky, the civil rights lawyer, emphasized that past empty promises were precisely why the city needed to work with advocates to zero in on concrete policy changes. He called for immediate de-escalation training for the entire department, publicization of disciplinary records and a binding revision to use of force guidelines, as a start.

“When they’ve looked at stuff, they’ve done some good things,” he said, citing a reduction in use of force under former Commissioner Charley Ramsey. “But this agenda is kind of a laundry list without a lot of bite.”

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