By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — Mayor Jim Kenney and city Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw had few answers about the stark disparities in law enforcement during a third night of civil unrest when police tear gassed demonstrators but allowed a band of baseball-wielding white vigilantes to gather in the Fishtown neighborhood.
On Tuesday, the mayor and commissioner said they were continuing to investigate those incidents and others during the previous night, pledging the department’s Internal Affairs division would probe officers’ conduct.
Kenney defended law enforcement’s use of tear gas on protesters marching across Interstate 676 in Center City before the 6 p.m. curfew, saying it was a “last resort” when demonstrators surrounded a state trooper in his vehicle. But additional uses of tear gas may have occurred.
“I am deeply concerned by this development,” he said.
Outlaw firmly stood by the gassing of demonstrators, which she said was ordered by the incident commander at the scene, whom she did not identify.
Demonstrators on the highway were throwing rocks at officers as well, Outlaw said. Officers issued warnings to demonstrators before firing beanbags and pellets, using pepper spray, and deploying tear gas.
“The option of deploying tear gas was selected when it became evident at that time other options were not effective,” Outlaw said.
The police commissioner said Internal Affairs also would investigate an officer seen in a video that surfaced on social media ripping off a demonstrator’s face mask and dousing her with pepper spray.
While police used heavy handed tactics against protesters in Center City and elsewhere during the last three nights of protests, officers permitted a mob of white men to remain gathered near the department’s 26th District headquarters in the Fishtown neighborhood on Monday after the citywide curfew was in place.
Police separated the white vigilantes from a group of demonstrators along Girard Avenue before they dispersed them.
The group claimed they were protecting the district headquarters. Jon Ehrens, a WHYY producer who was in the area, tweeted that he heard members of the group using the N-word and talking about “looking for a fight.”
There was one report of assault; none of the vigilantes were arrested.
Police did not use tear gas in the incident.
Kenney said officers made a “mistake” to allow the vigilantes to gather for as long as they did before dispersing them. The mayor also said he was “disturbed” that officers were spotted on video posted on social media supporting the vigilantes, giving them high-fives and taking photos with them.
“I’m glad the police eventually moved in to disperse the group, but not happy about how long it took,” the mayor said. “We tolerated last night for too long and that was a mistake.”
“Armed vigilantism will not be tolerated moving forward,” he added.
Outlaw strongly encouraged residents not to take justice into their own hands and distanced the department from the group.
“We do not condone any acts of violence and as an agency, we don’t take sides,” she said.
Asked about the inconsistent use of force by police, Kenney said, “I don’t know, but we’re going to find out.”
Protests, looting and vandalism have gripped this city and others since Saturday over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The demonstrations in Philadelphia have led to 692 arrests, a number expected to grow as defendants are processed, Outlaw said. At least 25 officers have sustained injuries. National Guard troops remain deployed in the city.
The police department is working with federal officials to investigate the vandalism of numerous ATMs in the city. One man died on Monday after he attempted to break into an ATM with an explosive device in North Philadelphia.
Outlaw believed the ATM break-ins were organized and coordinated efforts.
The commissioner has assigned “looting teams” to the six patrol divisions in an attempt to quell the ransacking of businesses and vandalism throughout the city.
A citywide curfew was in effect between 8:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. Wednesday, delayed a half hour for Tuesday’s primary election.