Philly Council delays plan to arm all city cops with tasers

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — City Council has hit the brakes on a rush to equip all police officers with Tasers following the fatal police-involved killing of Walter Wallace Jr. earlier this year.

City legislators have yet to schedule a necessary committee hearing for a $13.8 million proposal from the Kenney administration to buy 4,500 Tasers and related equipment from the Arizona-based Axon Enterprise before the end of the year.

As a result, the bill cannot pass before the end of 2020.

The delay comes as a seeming turnaround for Council President Darrell Clarke, the main sponsor of the Taser proposal that was introduced last week.

Following Wallace’s killing on Oct. 26, Clarke pledged that City Council would immediately approve a proposal to pay for outfitting all cops with Tasers. As council president, Clarke has control over the scheduling of committee hearings.

“If the police say we need some additional money to accelerate the purchase of Tasers, that’s a simple ask,” Clarke said at the time.

On Monday, Clarke spokesman Joe Grace did not respond to questions about the legislative timeline for the proposal.

“All I have on Tasers is no decision yet on a hearing date,” Grace said in an email. “We’ll wait for the hearing and Council members can weigh in then on all of these issues.”

The Kenney administration said last week that the city could potentially receive the Tasers before the end of the year if legislators approve the contract proposal in December.

Plan to give tasers to all Philly cops could come this week, Mayor Kenney says

The bill must be passed out of a legislative committee before heading to the full City Council, where it must be heard during two separate sessions before a vote.

Legislators have several committee hearings scheduled during the next two weeks, but the Taser proposal is not one of them. City Council has two legislative sessions remaining this year, Dec. 3 and 10.

The proposal would renew an existing city contract with Axon Enterprise through at least February 2026.

Under the terms of the proposal, the city would shell out $900,000 the first year and $3.2 million annually thereafter through the life of the contract.

In addition to Tasers, the contract includes training, battery packs, holsters, live cartridges and virtual reality headsets. Tasers deliver an electric shock that temporarily stuns the target.

The Kenney administration and the Police Department have come under intense scrutiny following the incident when two white police officers shot and killed Wallace, who was wielding a knife, during a confrontation in West Philadelphia.

Wallace is said to have suffered from a bipolar disorder and his family maintains he was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time. The officers were not equipped with Tasers.

Wallace’s killing sparked days of protests and civil unrest, including looting in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities. National Guard troops were called into the city soon after.

Among other police reforms, the Wallace family is demanding the city outfit all officers with Tasers. Approximately 2,301 officers are trained to carry Tasers in a department with approximately 6,500 cops. The incident has accelerated the department’s original timeline to equip all officers with Tasers over the next five years.

“The unnecessary death of Walter Wallace Jr. was just the latest example of how crucial it is for police to have adequate training and equipment, in order to avoid excessive escalation when responding to 911 calls,” said City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier (D-District 3) in an email. “I do believe that police should have access to tasers, but this shouldn’t come at an additional cost to taxpayers.

“While we haven’t yet received any request for additional funding connected to this contract, I would hope that the Council pushes PPD to demonstrate that they have exhausted every possible avenue of cost-cutting within their current budget before we agree to move forward with any appropriation.”

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