Philly FOP boss quiet as pols align on police reforms, budget cuts

(Photo via Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Where is John McNesby?

The president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, the union that represents the city’s 6,500 cops, has dodged questions in the past week as city officials have coalesced around a series of police reforms and budget cuts targeting the police department following weeks of city protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man and father of two in Minneapolis.

On Friday morning, McNesby was not available at the FOP’s headquarters.

“Save yourself a trip, McNesby is NOT their [sic],” said police union spokesman Mike Neilon in an email responding to a request for comment.

No other police union officials were available for comment at the Northeast Philadelphia building, a receptionist told a reporter inside the building.

The leaders of two organizations that represent Black police officers in the city, meanwhile, have been more responsive to questions and supportive of some of the proposed changes.

Reforms over budget cutsThe troubled Philadelphia Police Department and its officers face a seemingly united political front committed to reforms.

Early in the week, Mayor Jim Kenney nixed his plans to boost the police budget by $19 million, and said he would hold spending levels at this year’s budget of $741 million. He did not rule out further cuts or layoffs as his administration and City Council hammer out a budget this month.

Kenney also put forward dozens of police reforms that include updating the department’s use-of-force policies, establishing an independent Police Oversight Commission and providing more reporting on police misconduct.

City Council on Thursday introduced a package of legislation that would establish a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, ban choke holds and other restrictive-breathing techniques used by officers, and make negotiations around the police union’s collective bargaining agreement more transparent.

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Kenney said on Tuesday some of the reforms have already begun and those changes that can be accomplished through his office and City Council “will be done, I assume, sooner.”

Some reforms will have to be hashed out in union contract negotiations. Kenney extended the police union’s contract through June 30, 2021, after the coronavirus outbreak began in the city.

Reaction from the FOP

“We have no comment,” Neilon said in an email about the mayor’s proposed police reforms earlier in the week.

McNesby, who is typically quick to call a news conference or issue a news release to defend officers accused of abuse and wrongdoing or condemn detractors in colorful language, has been uncharacteristically quiet about the proposed reforms.

He has continued to defend officers accused of wrongdoing — but mostly on social media.

On Monday, McNesby accompanied Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr. outside FOP headquarters as a crowd of union members cheered Bologna, who was on his way to surrender on charges of aggravated assault for allegedly beating a Temple University student with a baton during the protests, according to NBC 10 Philadelphia. McNesby did not answer questions from the press.

McNesby tweeted on June 5 that the FOP was “disgusted” over the arrest of Bologna and attacked District Attorney Larry Krasner for filing the charges. In another tweet, he called on members to buy FOP-made T-shirts that read, “BOLOGNA STRONG.”

“The FOP will vigorously defend Bologna against these baseless allegations and charges,” McNesby tweeted.

Leaders of Black police groups more forthcoming

Many active Black officers in the Guardian Civic League feel they have been “getting lumped into one group” with the FOP and they “do not all agree with [the FOP’s] endorsements and opinions,” said league President Crystal Coleman Williams.

The Guardian Civic League represents approximately 1,200 active and retired Black officers in the city.

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Williams supported some reforms to the department, including the proposals to create the oversight commission, outfit all officers with body cameras, and offer more training.

“I’m glad that they’re looking at it and I’m glad they are looking at doing reforms because policy does need to be changed in that area,” Williams said.

“This is what the police department needs.”

But Williams stopped short of backing funding cuts to the police department, saying reforms and increasing accountability require more funding to accomplish. Officials should not raid the police department’s budget to pay for programs for social issues, including mental health services, that officers are now tasked to address, she said.

“[Police officers] need a lot of stuff out there that they need to reduce these incidents all over the country and that takes money,” said Williams, a former Philadelphia police officer who spent more than 30 years on the force.

Indiscriminately slashing police budgets also could potentially lead to layoffs of officers of color, who already make up a smaller portion of the police ranks, said Charles Wilson, who heads the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.

Wilson supported reallocating some current police funding to programs and services to address issues that police are not equipped to handle.

“If they’re looking to reallocate funds and resources to other areas that would be more appropriate to provide service and assistance to the community, that might be a good thing,” Wilson said.

Overall, Wilson said police reforms were needed to change a culture of law enforcement that allowed a white Minneapolis police officer to kneel on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

“The profession has to undergo reform,” he said.

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