Philly will hire consultant to investigate police response to recent protests

Police arrest dozens of protesters on Route 676 near 21st Street after they blocked traffic.

Police line up protesters after tear gas was used on I-676 in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia will hire an independent consultant to investigate the city’s response to more than two weeks of protests against police brutality — including the police department’s use of force — which has drawn criticism from activists, community leaders and elected officials.

The city has not selected a consultant to conduct the “after-action investigation” and a request for proposals is still being drafted.

The scope of the project is being finalized, but officials said in a statement Monday the investigation will review police reports, body-worn camera footage, news and social media accounts, as well as departmental policies, procedures and directives.

The consultant will also interview protesters and other eyewitnesses to police activities and collect evidence from other law enforcement agencies that assisted the department, including the Pennsylvania State Police.

Minneapolis Police Death Protests Philadelphia
Police and protesters clash Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Philadelphia, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The investigation will also assess whether “additional limitations or categorical prohibitions” are needed on certain types of force.

“Our commitment to reform must also include an assessment of how police responded to the very protests that called for change,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said in a statement.

“While I’ve witnessed many officers respond bravely and with compassion, I have also witnessed inappropriate use of force and other conduct that I do not condone — nor will I allow to continue by those who serve the Philadelphia Police Department.”

The department and the Kenney administration have come under fire for the use of tear gas in Center City and parts of West Philadelphia during the first week of demonstrations to denounce the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

On June 1, a group of protestors broke off from a massive demonstration to block traffic on I-676. Police say they fired tear gas into the crowd after some people threw rocks at them and shook a state trooper’s vehicle while a trooper was inside.

A WHYY News/Billy Penn report found the department had no evidence to support either of those explanations. Police continued to use tear gas after protesters dispersed onto a steep embankment on the side of the expressway.

The same day, a viral cellphone video captured Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr., a department veteran with a history of misconduct, striking a Temple University student during a demonstration near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Philly police officers clash with protesters. The man identified as Staff Inspector Bologna is at center in a white shirt. (Screenshot via @Peopledelphia)

Bologna was charged with aggravated assault and other offenses. He was later suspended with intent to dismiss.

Residents have also raised concerns about two incidents involving groups of mostly white men carrying bats and other weapons in public in which police officers appeared to defend the groups or take a hands-off approach — contrary to their approach to protesters.

Over the weekend, an armed group gathered in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza in front of the statue of Christopher Columbus with the stated goal of protecting it from being vandalized.

Video posted to Twitter on Saturday shows a member of the group walking away with a reporter’s bike. Another man is then seen slashing the bike’s tires.

“You gonna talk shit, get the f—k out of here,” a man tells the reporter right beforehand.

White bat-wielding men in Fishtown
White bat-wielding men in Fishtown, who said they were there to protect police, assaulted at least three people during a protest on Monday. (Screenshot via Twitter)

Not long after police used tear gas on I-676, a group of white men clustered outside the 26th Police District in Fishtown to protect police and the neighborhood from looting. Some of them had bats. At least one man had a hatchet.

Members of the group allegedly assaulted at least three people that night, including a WHYY producer who was taping the scene.

A PPD spokesman said the department has now launched internal affairs investigations into the incidents in Fishtown and South Philadelphia. A pair of criminal investigations is also underway in connection to alleged assaults at both locations, he said.

Civil rights attorney David Rudovsky said there’s a “critical need” for the city to review its conduct over the last two weeks.

“Ultimately, the administration is saying the right things in terms of respecting protesters’ rights and restricting use-of-force and ensuring accountability. And that’s welcome. But now the real test is implementing those thoughts into actual police policy,” said Rudovsky.

The city will announce a timeline for the outside investigation after it has contracted with a consultant. A mayoral spokesman said the administration will “proceed expeditiously” with the project.

Preliminary findings and the final report will be made public.

A budget has yet to be determined.

Get the WHYY app!

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