Philly councilmembers call for ambassadors, not police, to enforce social distancing

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks past stuttered businesses in Philadelphia, Thursday, May 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus walks past stuttered businesses in Philadelphia, Thursday, May 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Updated 5:06 p.m.

A group of Philadelphia City Councilmembers are calling for an alternative to Philadelphia Police being in charge of enforcing social distancing requirements. Council members have an alternative idea: social distancing ambassadors.

Five members of council signed off on Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’ request to Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration to create a new post to enforce regulations meant to contain COVID-19.

“With the tension that is here, not just in Philadelphia but across the country, as it relates to policing we want to make sure that the conversation is taking place and there’s a certain level of trust and people are not targeted because of anything but the need to social distance,” Thomas said, explaining his reasoning behind the proposal.

Thomas said he hopes the ambassadors will be from the neighborhoods where they would be assigned.

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted and if we are going to specifically focus on [it], how do we assure that doesn’t continue to happen?” he said. “The people we ask to go into the communities to encourage people to social distance themselves must be people they can trust.”

Thomas said the ambassadors could be paid with federal pandemic funding that is on its way to the city. Hiring could be made through a new class of city employees that was supposed to direct traffic and enforce quality of life issues, Thomas said.

He believes that using a lighter touch would help with compliance.

“When police officers respond to any type of situation they are trained to look for more than they are just called for, so if I am responding to anything around social distancing and I see another illegal activity taking place, it’s easy to see how social distancing won’t be focused on at that point,” he said.

The letter has been sent to Kenney for review.

Kelley Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for the mayor, released a statement saying, “We are open to discussion with Council about this program as we continue to safely reopen Philadelphia,” noting that the Parks and Recreation Department has been using social distancing ambassadors to help people understand and follow COVID-19 regulations in public places.

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