14 Philly Council members demand police reforms; reject Kenney’s budget increases for department

Mayor Jim Kenney delivers his 2021 budget address on Thursday in City Hall ( Tribune Photo by Abdul R. Sulayman)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — A majority of City Council has resoundingly rejected Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget increases for the police and called for a series of reforms to a department struggling to overcome a history of racist and inequitable policing.

With the backdrop of national protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, 14 city council members called for an overhaul of the department’s policies to ensure transparency and accountability, and a rebalancing of how the city funds the troubled department in a letter sent to the mayor on Monday.

“The Police Department — along with the policing profession nationally — faces a crisis of legitimacy,” wrote Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, vice chairman of the council’s committee on public safety, in the letter.

Only councilmen Brian O’Neil, David Oh and Bobby Henon did not sign the letter.

Mike Dunn, a Kenney administration spokesman, said in an email: “We appreciate Council’s detailed suggestions and are giving them serious consideration. We expect to have a more detailed response later today.”

Members of council dismissed Kenney’s proposed $14 million bump in the department’s budget. (Kenney called for hiking the police’s budget by $23 million in total.)

The police department was among the few left unscathed from significant citywide budget cuts in the mayor’s proposed spending plan amid a $649 million budget shortfall stemming from the economic recession brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The police budget accounts for $760 million of Kenney’s $4.9 billion proposed spending plan (15.5%), tied with the city’s anticipated spending on pensions for the largest expenditures in the budget.

Legislators called for redirecting that spending to other departments.

“It is counterproductive to increase spending on the Police Department while cutting spending on public health, housing, social services, violence prevention, youth programs, libraries, parks, recreation centers, and the arts,” according to the letter.

The members of council who signed the letter amount to a veto-proof majority over the spending plan. The legislature must pass a budget by June 30.

Members of council also endorsed more than a dozen reforms to the department, including:

  • Banning sitting or kneeling on a person’s neck, face or head;
  • Increasing police oversight;
  • Expanding reporting of civilian complaints and internal investigations;
  • Including community members and independent experts on the city’s police oversight boards;
  • Reforming policies regarding when police can unholster and use firearms;
  • Eliminating the “stop-and-frisk” police tactic;
  • Including community members and independent experts during the collective bargaining process for the police union; and
  • Bolstering residency requirements.

Yet many of the reforms appear stalled for at least a year.

Many of the reforms run counter to the protections enshrined in the police union’s contract, including the residency requirements that allow officers to live outside city limits after five years of service. The Kenney administration extended the police union’s contract through June 30, 2021, in light of the pandemic.

The police union, Police Benevolent Association Lodge 5, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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