Policing Philadelphia will present stark challenges for next mayor

The future of policing in Philadelphia hasn’t been a high concern among the mayoral candidates.

Crime in 2015 simply doesn’t carry the same urgency it did in 2007, during the last competitive mayor’s race.

Still, with the city’s police under the supervision of the Department of Justice and the lingering question of whether Charles Ramsey will stay as Philadelphia’s top cop, Mayor Nutter is handing his successor a department riddled with complications.

In the backdrop of transition come these findings: Philly’s police officers are firing at suspects almost once a week. Police training is lackluster. Effective oversight has a long way to go.

The stark conclusions arose from the DOJ report released in March that’s going to loom large under Ramsey, or whoever else assumes his position.

For his part, Ramsey has pledged to start implementing changes including beefing up de-escalation training and equipping officers with less lethal weapons such as stun guns and pepper spray. In remarks to City Council recently, Ramsey said the department’s operating budget must grow by 7 percent in order, in part, to implement some of the DOJ’s suggestions.

Kelvyn Anderson with the Police Advisory Commission said with federal officials promising to return in six months to monitor how far progress has come, pressure to act fast is quickly mounting.

“Well, I think the major challenge is revamping from top to bottom how we conceive of the use of force, particularly shootings,” Anderson said. “How we train our officers to hopefully reduce shootings when possible, and also to keep, obviously, our citizens safe.”

But like education, policing crime is a neighborhood issue.

Walk around the 18th Police District in West Philadelphia and talk to Shiela Johnson, who’s spent her whole life in the neighborhood.

She said the infighting has never ceased, and many of the violent criminals she’s known act as if they have nothing to life for, fearlessly.

“It’s the black on black crime. If we have that in our community, they have to learn how to protect us from that. That’s the problem. When we have thugs in our neighborhood that want to kill a cop, they’re just gonna have to deal with the consequences,” Johnson said.

Sgt. Thomas Davis said he talks to his morning squad of about a dozen or so officers every day during the 7 a.m. roll call about ways to avert potentially deadly encounters.

“The number one thing I don’t want them to do is violate anyone’s rights,” Davis said. “I haven’t met a police officer yet who wanted to kill anybody. That’s not what we wake up in the morning to trying to do. We’re taught to preserve life and property. We don’t want to take it away.” 

He’s been a police officer in Philly for more than two decades and is now assigned to the 18th District.

He said more than ever before, his officers are walking around neighborhoods, getting to know residents like Johnson. Part of fighting crime, he says, is building relationships. “Because you never know when you’ll need their help.”

In his patrol car, we pull up on a crowd of men hanging out in front of a corner store, a group that doesn’t appear to recieve Johnson as someone trying to start a new relationship. 

“There’s no need for them to stand on the corner like that. At all. If you’re not eating or doing anything, you probably should move on,” he said before doing a U-turn and stopping in front of the idling men.

“Gentleman, I’m gonna need you guys to move on if you’re not buying anything, OK?”

The men go scampering down the street.

That was painless, but sometimes, split-second judgments are a lot more complicated, Davis says.

“If I get a call and there’s a black male walking down the street with white pants and a blue coat on and you see three black males walking down the street with white pants and a blue coat on, all three people don’t deserve to get a gun pointed at them because that’s the description that came out,” Davis said.

“So you want to approach the person the right way, and handle the assignment the right way. Use caution.”

Even though violent crime is historically low, it’s still a part of daily life in many Philly neighborhoods, including many parts of the 18th District.

And it’s not coincidental that the area is also plagued with larger economic problems, in contrast to neighborhoods like Center City, says Drexel political science professor George Ciccareillo-Maher.

“These communities are devastated. They lack economic opportunity. Many people are cycling in and out of an ever-expanding system of mass incarceration. And unless you can begin to deal with some of those questions, there’s no way to deal with the underlying question of violence,” Ciccareillo-Maher said.

But if the candidates are focusing on education policy, shouldn’t those decisions have a downstream effect on things like crime?

They should, says Ciccariello-Maher, but the candidates have largely divorced the two.

“I think the question of education has allowed many of these mayoral candidates to shift the blame to Harrisburg, to the governor,” he said. “And this has prevented them for having to grapple in the foreground with these questions not only of police violence but of poverty.”

There could be big changes coming. The practice known as “stop and frisking” could be scaled back or scrapped altogether. More police officers could be outfitted with body cameras, and new training methods could be developed in the hope of lowering the number of violent interactions.

But Commissioner Ramsey says over-arching polices will stay the same: keeping tabs on known criminals, paying attention to possible retaliations and getting more officers to walk around troubled communities.

“There is no one-size-fits all, one strategy does it all,” Ramsey said recently. “We’ve had some reasonable success, but obviously we have a long way to go.”

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