Mayor Kenney’s second-in-command to resign over police reform efforts

Managing Director Brian Abernathy, Mayor Kenney’s second-in-command, has been the target of protests calling for his resignation.

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy answers questions at the city's daily coronavirus briefing at the Fire Administration Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy answers questions at the city's daily coronavirus briefing at the Fire Administration Building on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy will step down in his role as Mayor Jim Kenney’s second-in-command by September. 

The sudden power shift comes as the Kenney administration faces mounting calls to reform the city’s police department. Abernathy serves as the main liaison between the mayor and the police, and the longtime bureaucrat has become a direct target for protesters in the George Floyd era.

Dozens showed up at a demonstration last month at the Municipal Services Building, where Abernathy’s office is located, to call for his resignation. These calls resurfaced shortly after activists said he’d sent counterterrorism police to their door after they staged a protest in front of his personal residence. Calls for his resignation even date back to 2018, when Kenney first appointed him to take the job. 

People with firsthand knowledge of the decision told PlanPhilly and Billy Penn on Monday that plans would be announced at an all-staff meeting Tuesday morning. The city later sent out a press release confirming the personnel change and marking a September 4th departure date.

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“I thank Brian for his service to the City of Philadelphia,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “I particularly thank him for his tireless dedication while managing multiple unprecedented crises in the past four months. I will miss his counsel and measured leadership, and I wish him well on all of his future pursuits.”

Abernathy outlined accomplishments during his time in the office: Launching Rebuild –– an initiative to repair decrepit city buildings –– starting initiatives aimed at combating the opioid crisis in Kensington, and other initiatives aimed at addressing homelessness.

But he seemed to acknowledge that an unprecedented public call for a shift in city policies required fresh leadership.

“As Philadelphia shapes its future, our city must face the demons of inequity, poverty, and racism. All voices must be heard—the status quo is no longer acceptable,” Abernathy said, in a statement. “Progress will not be possible until everyone understands the meaning of Black Lives Matter. To truly tackle these demands, different voices are required at every level of government.”

A  source close to Mayor Kenney, speaking on the condition of anonymity, praised Abernathy’s work ethic, but said the administration did not have confidence in Abernathy to execute a police reform agenda. On Tuesday, Kenney denied that Abernathy’s resignation had anything to do with his performance in recent months.

“This seemed to be the best time for him,” Kenney said Tuesday.

That’s a different tune than both officials sang just weeks ago, when Kenney still defended his managing director and Abernathy claimed he had no plans to leave city government any time soon, according to the Inquirer

It remains unclear who Kenney will appoint to replace him, in either an interim or permanent capacity. Abernathy said he hoped his resignation would allow different voices to lead the city through the Black Lives Matter era — and that his successor would be an African American woman. Kenney said the city would conduct a search to fill the position full-time.

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Abernathy himself has acknowledged some of his missteps during the early days of Movement for Black Lives protests, which have surged through Philadelphia from May 30 onward.

“I was dumbfounded by how out of touch I truly was,” he said during a City Council budget hearing in early June. “And how I had underestimated the anger and rage and frustration of folks I’m hired to serve.”

A Boston native who was raised in Arkansas, Abernathy was a drama student whose life took an unexpected detour into local politics after he moved to Philadelphia to work at a local theater. A lowly constituent services job for a state senator translated into a position as a legislative aide for Kenney ally and former City Council member Frank DiCicco. 

Abernathy himself briefly eyed DiCicco’s seat, but he turned to management instead, serving as chief of staff to the Managing Director Rich Negrin under Mayor Michael Nutter, and later as executive director of the Redevelopment Authority. When Kenny took office, Abernathy was appointed as an immediate deputy to former Managing Director Michael Diberardinas, who resigned in 2018. Abernathy succeeded him.

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