Philly City Council passes police reforms, shelves others for the summer

The skyline in Center City Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Michael D’Onofrio

Philadelphia City Council approved four police reforms on Thursday but left others shelved for the summer.

Legislators passed a bill to reinstate a residency requirement that all city employees, including police officers, live in Philadelphia for at least one year prior to joining the city payroll.

Members of council also approved three resolutions that will place a trio of ballot questions before voters on the Nov. 3 ballot asking them whether to:

  • Call on police to end the use of “unconstitutional stop and frisk”;
  • Create a civilian oversight commission on police conduct; and
  • Create a victim advocate office.

Most of the police reforms were the result of weeks of protests in the city and across the U.S. ignited by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Yet left undone was a pair of police reforms that would ban chokeholds and similar restraints, and bring transparency to the city’s collective bargaining negotiations with the police union by requiring a public hearing on the city’s proposals.

Council members are on summer break until September, when the next session is scheduled.

Residency requirement restored: The residency requirement for city employees aimed to change the diversity of the Philadelphia Police Department so the force better reflects the city, Councilwoman Cherelle Parker said.

Parker added that the requirement made “good economic sense” and Philadelphia residents should get city jobs, which will expand the city’s tax base.

“We need people to add to our tax base and if we need to prepare people, let’s prepare people,” Parker said. “The people policing the city of Philadelphia should look like the city of Philadelphia.”

Councilman Brian O’Neill was the only member to vote against the bill.

The legislation did not win the support of at least one majority city union.

Catherine Scott, president AFSCME District Council 47, said in a letter to Kenney this month that the requirement would “seriously hinder the City’s ability to hire employees” for jobs the union represents, including physicians, pharmacists and civil engineers.

In her letter, Scott questioned why the requirement targeted some city employees but not others or contractors.

“I believe that this proposed amendment will lead to the unintended consequence of contracting out more work which should be performed by civil service employees,” Scott said in her letter. “Presently, those contracted employees have no residency requirement; they are not even required to live in Pennsylvania.”

The police department is approximately 62% white, according to 2018 figures; people of color make up 66% of the city’s demographics.

The city has mandated residency requirements for nearly all city employees since the 1950s. But in 2008, legislation from then-Councilman Jim Kenney led to the abolition of the one-year residency requirement prior to hiring for new city employees.

In 2010, the police union won the right for some members to live outside the city limits; the terms went into effect in 2012 for all officers who have five or more years of experience.

Call to eliminate stop and frisk: The vote to end the unconstitutional use of stop and frisk is non-binding and would not immediately end the tactic.

The police department has a long, troubled history with the tactic, which overwhelmingly targets Blacks and people of color.

The abuse of the tactic led to a 2011 consent decree between the city and ACLU of Pennsylvania, which the city remained under, to enact reforms and collect data.

Kenney campaigned in 2015 to end the tactic altogether but flip-flopped and police continue to use stop and frisk.

Police oversight commission: If approved, the Citizens Police Oversight Commission would be the successor of the Police Advisory Commission. The new oversight group would independently review civilian complaints against officers and use-of-force incidents, among other things.

The Kenney administration has said the Citizens Police Oversight Commission will have subpoena power — which the current commission now lacks.

O’Neill was the only member to vote against putting the referendum on the November ballot.

Victim advocate: The victim advocate, if established, would focus on gun violence; investigate complaints stemming from interactions between victims/co-victims and law enforcement, among other government agencies; and make policy recommendations, among other things.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.