Upper Darby announces policing reforms and policy review

The town, Delaware County’s largest and one of the most racially diverse, has signed on to an Obama Foundation initiative pushing reforms.

George Floyd protest in Upper Darby

Police block a street in Upper Darby, Pa. on Sunday May 31, 2020, as people move through streets in protest over the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Updated 4:32 p.m.

Officials in Upper Darby say they are taking concrete steps toward police reforms, just a month after signing onto a national initiative led by the Obama Foundation to encourage mayors and local governments to review policing practices.

In a news release Wednesday morning, Mayor Barbarann Keffer’s administration said it had been soliciting feedback from community members in the last few weeks with an eye toward policy changes.

“One thing that seems to unite everyone is a desire to not continue the status quo,” Keffer said in the release. “Everyone recognizes that it’s long past time to take a hard look at the systemic issues that have created a space for brutality to go unchecked.”

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In June, Keffer signed on to the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Pledge, an initiative by former President Barack Obama’s foundation that calls on mayors and city councilors to commit to a process for police reforms. The four general steps are a review of use-of-force tactics, gathering experiences and recommendations from community groups, reporting back those findings, and ultimately reforming how local police are allowed to use force. In addition to Upper Darby, the initiative has been taken up by mayors of several major U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Dallas and San Francisco.

Upper Darby’s police superintendent is fully cooperating with the effort, the release said.

“There is always room for growth and improvement, and that includes our officers here in Upper Darby,” said Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt.

Still, some of the proposed changes will require approval during collective bargaining discussions with the Fraternal Order of Police, according to Upper Darby’s chief administrative officer, Vincent Rongione, who is spearheading much of the initiative’s outreach and review.

So far, the township has said it will publish the police department’s use-of-force policy and create a standing committee for gathering community feedback.

Other steps are less straightforward and details will take time to hammer out.

The township is evaluating how it might demilitarize the police department, for example. That includes decisions about shedding military vehicles and firearms Upper Darby has acquired through federal programs over the years.

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“In Upper Darby Township, the eastern half of the township especially, the streets are so narrow and dense that some of those military vehicles can’t even operate in our neighborhoods,”

Rongione said in an interview. “Some of those things that we may or may not really need.”

The township also will use the budget process to re-evaluate resources going into the police department. It is getting quotes for the cost of implementing body or dash cameras, finding out if that could be financially feasible. Also on the table, according to Rongione, is potentially consolidating specialty units like SWAT teams with nearby municipalities.

“If you’re a huge city, a Houston, a Philadelphia, of course you need SWAT teams,” Rongione said. “If you’re Upper Darby, maybe it’s more appropriate to partner with another community, partner with the county, rather than have your own dedicated, more militarized division.”

With those potential savings, he added, local officials could redirect funds toward other areas of public safety.

“We can invest the money in community resource officers, doing the kind of work that police officers spend a lot of time doing in the community,” Rongione said. “Let’s make the budget priorities match the actual work and values.”

Upper Darby is the largest community in Delaware County, with diverse demographics and the biggest police department in Delco. The township saw protests and calls for police reform in the days and weeks following larger demonstrations in Philadelphia and around the country, with many residents saying there is persistent unequal treatment of Black residents by law enforcement.

Last month, county officials announced that the district attorney would be heading a task force focused on potential reforms across all 41 municipal police departments within the jurisdiction.

This article was updated to include additional details from Upper Darby Township’s chief administrative officer. 

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