Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins wanted to use his stardom to amplify residents’ voices in the search for a new police commissioner during a town hall he hosted Monday. But by the end of the evening, Jenkins found himself promising to do better as a celebrity activist to a handful of residents frustrated with an event they described as less than fruitful.
“It seems like y’all have a goal and y’all want things to be different, but the things you’re saying is old, we’ve done this already,” Kamau Mshale, an artist and activist, told Jenkins. He said calls from residents for a culturally competent and accountable police force go back years.
The exchange at a Community College of Philadelphia auditorium came after nearly three hours — the event was scheduled to run for two — of panelists speaking to the importance of having a transparent police department communities can trust and a need for a cultural shift.
Activists said they’d also heard the line of how difficult it’s going to be for the public to get a say in police contracts between the city and the Fraternal Order of Police, officers’ union.
Jenkins acknowledged the panels, made up of city and religious leaders, didn’t make any groundbreaking discoveries, per se, but he explained it also wasn’t the main goal of the event.
“This biggest thing is how do we capture this voice, this energy and push it out there and put the pressure on those who actually have the power to make changes,” Jenkins told Mshale. “So this is really less about us talking to each other than collecting information and collecting those voices and putting those out there.”
Still, Monday’s event showed another glimpse of how deep mistrust of the police runs in Philly and how residents expect follow-up from their celebrity activists.
The search for a new Philadelphia police commissioner comes after the department’s former leader Richard Ross resigned — during an already turbulent year for one of the country’s largest police forces — after claims he ignored reports of sexual harassment in the department. He was also accused of specifically ignoring some claims because the female officer bringing them forward had ended an affair with Ross.
“What we want to say is a commissioner that comes in with the idea that there needs to be a radical change in the culture of policing in Philadelphia,” said Jenkins in conversation with Rev. Leslie Callahan of St. Paul’s Baptist Church and rapper Meek Mill. “It’s not one practice or training or this, it’s a complete culture shift.”
Mayor Jim Kenney has said he wants the public’s input in the selection of a replacement, which he hopes to name by the end of the year, according to Managing Director Brian Abernathy who sat in for Kenney for the event.
Abernathy spoke to some of the challenges Ross’ replacement would need to tackle, including increasing diversity in hiring and dismantling internal gender bias.
Making progress or talking in circles?
Jenkins stepped down from the stage to speak to Mshale and others in the audience after the event ended before several people in line got to speak, setting off a minor uproar.
Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture, with Black Alliance for Peace, made her comments over the sound of piano music that started playing when her mic was cut.
“I’m reclaiming my time,” she said.
Nkrumah-Ture carried a sign with the names of Kaleb Belay, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Philly who was critically wounded this year after he was shot multiple times by an officer while he wielded a knife, and Brandon Tate-Brown, who was fatally shot during a traffic stop.
“There were no families on any of these panels with a discussion as timely and as serious and as urgent as police brutality and police terrorism in the city of Philadelphia and that to me is irresponsible,” she said, which she wanted to point out to Jenkins.
People like Devren Washington worried the town hall only reiterated shortcomings in the department outlined elsewhere, including a 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report.
The report outlined problems with the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of excessive force — by 2017, the DOJ said the department had adopted more than 90% of the recommendations made in that report.
Though Washington appreciated the attention Jenkins and Meek Mill brought to the search for a new police commissioner, he expressed concern over celebrities picking up a cause lightly.
Advocating for social justice is not new for Jenkins and he promised more town halls. He is one of the founders of the Players Coalition, a group of athletes who advocate for social justice reform, which live-streamed Monday’s event. Jenkins pushed for the clean slate bill, signed into law last year, which is expected to help seal millions of criminal records in the commonwealth after 10 years.
Still, Washington left with doubts.
“I’m worried that this meeting won’t be followed up with the necessary meeting with community organizers, the ones who actually get boots on the ground and actually change the consensus of the community,” Washington said.