Philly Council committee advances chokehold ban, measure to make police contract talks public

Clockwise from top left: Samantha Williams, legislative director for Councilman Curtis Jones; Jones; Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore Richardson; Councilman Kenyatta Johnson; Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier; and Monica Marchetti-Brock, director of the Mayor's Office of Labor Relations (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — A City Council committee advanced a pair of police reform proposals prompted by the weeks-long protests over the law enforcement killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Yet those reforms will sit on the shelf for months as legislators go on summer break.

One proposal would bring transparency to the city’s collective bargaining negotiations with the police union, which won the support of the Kenney administration, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and several advocacy groups at the hearing.

The other bill would ban chokeholds and similar restraints under most circumstances. Commissioner Danielle Outlaw backed the legislation, as did Sheriff Rochelle Bilal and SEPTA police.

No representative from the police union testified at the hours-long hearing.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 President John McNesby had no comment, police union spokesman Mike Neilon said in an email.

While the dual proposals were expected to go before City Council this week, members of council go on summer break after Thursday. No council session is scheduled until mid-September — marking the earliest legislators could hold a final vote on the proposals.

Police contract

“We cannot create change behind closed doors,” said At-large Councilwoman Katherine Gilmore Richardson, the main sponsor behind the proposal to hold public hearings around police union negotiations.

The legislation, which the committee amended, would mandate a public hearing 30 days prior to city officials beginning negotiations with the police union over a collective bargaining agreement.

Senate panel unanimously passes ban on police chokeholds

Richardson said her bill would allow public input over the city’s police budget, which makes up nearly 15% of the city’s total budget ($741 million this past year), and the administration’s initial proposal. But she admitted the limitations of her legislation.

“This bill will not eradicate structural inequities, but it will set us on a path toward change,” Richardson said.

Richard Lazer, the city’s deputy mayor of labor, said the administration “strongly supports” the proposal for a public hearing on the police contract.

“[The proposal] provides the public forum that will facilitate transparency and public comment, while preserving our rights to collectively bargain with represented city employees,” Lazer said.

Outlaw added there was a “clear need for community input.”

The legislation also would require the Kenney administration to provide City Council with an update about how the public input influenced its proposal to the police union.

The Kenney administration’s support of transparency around the police union’s collective bargaining agreement was a reversal from the position it had last year, when the administration declined to publicly disclose issues or answer questions around the contract negotiations with the police union.

Richardson said past negotiations have been used to maintain policies and procedures that maintain the status quo, including those around internal disciplinary procedures.

If the proposal is approved, a hearing could be scheduled before the year’s end.

The current police contract ends on the last day of June 2021. And the administration is expected to submit its proposal to the FOP by Dec. 31.

The Kenney administration rushed to lock in a one-year collective bargaining agreement extension for the police union in March as the novel coronavirus pandemic was initially affecting the city. The contract awarded police pay raises at a time when the administration made deep budget cuts and made no substantive changes to the disciplinary process for officers accused of wrongdoing.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, the city’s elected fiscal watchdog, said Richardson’s proposal was “an important step in increasing transparency and public understanding of negotiations” between the city and police union.

Rhynhart also called on legislators to extend the proposal to include all collective bargaining negotiations between the city and unions, such as the firefighters union.

Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church and member of the interfaith community group POWER, said public safety has been a one-way conversation for too long. He faulted the FOP for defending police accused of wrongdoing, abuse and shooting Black men in the back.

“The challenge to getting to the reforms that we demand is the current behind-closed-doors-done-in-the-dark way of negotiating the contract,” Tyler said. “It’s time to turn on the light.”

Neck restraints

“We do not need a George Floyd incident to take place here,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, the main sponsor of the legislation to limit neck restraints.

The proposal, which the committee amended, would prohibit officers from using chokeholds and other neck restraints.

Under the bill, an officer cannot sit, kneel or stand on an individual’s head, neck, or face, but could use those actions on someone’s chest and back in some circumstances, including to prevent serious bodily injury to an officer or the public.

While Outlaw said she supported Johnson’s proposal, she noted similar policies were already in place. She admitted the directives were not absolutely clear.

“This is not necessarily a change in departmental policy but rather a necessary clarification,” the commissioner said.

The department has banned the use of chokeholds for years. Outlaw recently updated the department’s use of force policies, including prohibiting officers sitting, kneeling or standing on an individual’s back or chest, and standing on a person’s head, face or neck area. Those directives, however, could be rescinded under any future commissioner.

Enshrining the restrictions into law would make them permanent.

All police directives also were recently posted publicly online for the first time. They are available here.

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