Philly tests law enforcement without guns

Protesters marched by Philadelphia’s City Hall Thursday in ongoing efforts to get officials to address police brutality against Black people. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

As calls to defund the police spread across the nation, Philadelphia is moving forward with a plan to create a new class of law enforcement called Safety Enforcement Officers.

The new type of unarmed public servants, who lack arrest powers, will regulate traffic flow and quality-of-life enforcement in Center City. The officers are part of the city’s efforts to decrease traffic congestion.

The program will be run by the city’s Managing Director’s Office rather than the Police Department, one of several moves made in a budgeting process shaped by weeks of protests over police brutality. The latest spending plan budgets $1.9 million for 28 SEO positions.

The staff will include one sworn police lieutenant, one office clerk, two radio dispatchers, two civilian supervisors and 20 enforcement officers. City spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco says hiring for the program may be delayed until next year.

“The administration has submitted the new job descriptions associated with this program to the Civil Service Commission for review,” said Cofrancisco.

The civil servants are the brainchild of City Council President Darrell Clarke to help free up police staff and resources to address more serious crimes like gun violence. Clarke even visited New York City to observe their version of the program.

“Too many people here are unsafe during their bike to work, their walk to school, or on their own block,” Clarke said in May 2019. “Our brave and dedicated police officers deserve all necessary resources to focus on violent crime without being stretched because of worsening traffic congestion.”

While Clarke created the new form of law enforcement with traffic congestion in mind, the new kind of cop offers a window into what enforcement could look like without armed police officers, and city officials expect pushback from the local police union.

“We believe that this is police work and should be done by sworn police officers,” said Michael Neilon, a spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police. “There’s no gray area on this type of work. Traffic enforcement is a duty reserved for local and state police.”

Devren Washington, an organizer with the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter, says more law enforcement, sworn or unsworn, with or without guns, is not the answer.

“Right now, what is actually needed is for them to take money, real money, out of the police budget and give it back to the communities that need it,” Washington said.

One study found congestion is an equity issue since higher-income riders can more easily opt out of public transportation with private vehicles or ride shares, leaving lower-income riders to deal with time losses.

Past ticketing initiatives have shown improvements in bus travel times, but Anand Subramanian, managing director of PolicyLink, an economic and social equity nonprofit, says writing tickets isn’t the best way to hold people accountable.

In fact, Philadelphia is one of 10 places selected for a $50,000 grant to find ways to reform its fines and fees system, which critics say disproportionately burdens low-income people and people of color. But if the Safety Enforcement Officers must exist, says Subramanian, the move to take the program out of police control makes sense. “Especially if the city is interested in responding to some of the critiques and demands that folks from around the country are waging, including Philadelphia,” he added.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to remove a reference to jaywalking  mistakenly added in the editing process.

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