Philly Council committee votes to ban police use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters

Police deploy tear gas to disperse a crowd during a protest in Philadelphia over the killing of George Floyd

In this May 31, 2020 file photo, police deploy tear gas to disperse a crowd during a protest in Philadelphia over the killing of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A bill that would ban police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other “less lethal munitions” against residents exercising their First Amendment rights to protest has advanced out of a City Council committee and will now move to the full legislative body.

The Committee on Public Safety voted in favor of the bill after it’s second of two hearings, which ran a total of more than six hours over the past two weeks. These hearings focused on the tear gassing of protestors on I-676 and residents on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia during the first few days of protests calling attention to police brutality and the death of George Floyd.

Philadelphians shot with tear gas and rubber bullets have said police did so indiscriminately and cell phone footage reviewed by local news outlets such as WHYY, as well as the New York Times, corroborate those accounts.

On Tuesday, Police Commissioner Outlaw said disproportionate “use of force is not appropriate under any circumstance regardless of the neighborhood or any community.”

Outlaw, who issued a moratorium on tear gas in June, said her department is awaiting the results of reviews of those incidents to identify any additional ways the force can improve. The department’s use of force policy has since been updated to “clearly articulate” that kneeling on someone’s head or neck is prohibited and intentional pointing of a firearm at someone is now considered use of force.

But when asked how police could so recklessly hurt Philadelphians who appear to be doing nothing wrong on video, Outlaw leaned into examples of violence.

According to Outlaw, 12 police vehicles were set on fire or destroyed, 72 vehicles were vandalized and taken off the street, and 104 officers were assaulted or injured.

“The moment something becomes violent it is no longer a First Amendment protected activity,” said Outlaw who went on to describe a department in need of additional resources to adequately respond to the protests taking place all across the city.

Still, Councilmember Jamie Gauthier and others pointed to what police perceive as “violent” and their subsequent response can come down to their comfort level with the community.

When vigilantes wielding bats showed up in Fishtown and South Philly to “protect” businesses or statues, videos show police de-escalating the situation or letting the men walk freely.

“If the police had felt as familiar with the people in my district as they do to the people in Fishtown and South Philly, if they had felt like these were their pals, I argue their response would have been different,” Gauthier said.

Outlaw said she agreed with Gauthier but insisted protesters were not without blame in the cases where police responded with force.

“Something happened and so what these investigations are going to glean for us is timeline,” Outlaw said. “We’re talking about whether or not police response was proportionate to what they were seeing at that time.”

Outlaw’s response disappointed West Philly resident Shakira King who described waking up to the sound of helicopters and news that a police car was on fire at 52nd and Market streets.

She told the committee that a SWAT officer threw a tear gas canister in her direction while she and a group of others tried to protect Hakim’s Bookstore, a Black-owned business, from potential looters.

King described a burning sensation which penetrated her eyes and lungs.

“These kinds of super violent attacks help no one especially when a community is consistently underserved and has to rely on itself to stay safe,” King said.

King backed the bill and made a plea that the department gets no additional budget increases.

In the first days of the protest, the city spent $7 million in police overtime, a police official said during the hearing.

And yet, said King, public schools are underfunded and affordable housing remains lacking.

Monica Allison, another West Philly resident and committeeperson, said tear gas doesn’t belong in neighborhoods.

“Nor should it be used in the city,” Allison said. “It is reserved for military and war zone use and Philadelphia is not one.”

Follow PlanPhilly

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal