Here’s What’s in Mayor Kenney’s Police Reform Proposal — and What Local Activists Think About It

Following more than a week of intense national demonstrations, the Mayor has unveiled a list of reform proposals. Local activists protesting police brutality don’t think he goes nearly far enough.

police reform

A group of protesters confronts a police officer at a recent demonstration. On Tuesday, Mayor Kenney released his proposals for police reform. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

The past two weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd — among the most sustained and widespread mass demonstrations in American history — signaled in no uncertain terms the demand for widespread police reform nationwide. This demand has prompted different responses, as politicians have scrambled to put together reform proposals. In Minneapolis, the City Council indicated it would vote to disband its own police department, a stunning example of how activists in the streets have pushed once-extreme ideas — like defunding the police or police abolition — out of the pages of radical political literature and into the mainstream.

Closer to home, a group of statewide legislators, including Representative Jordan Harris of Philly, proposed a number of measures, ranging from stricter use-of-force guidelines to a statewide database that could track officer misconduct. A group of 14 City Councilmembers sent a letter to the Mayor that served both as an announcement that they wouldn’t accept any budget that increased police funding and as a list of policy reforms. And then on Tuesday, Kenney spoke, unveiling a long reform proposal that hit many of the points covered by the 14 Councilmembers and Representative Harris, including a boost in police oversight, striking the planned police budget increase, and an aggressive renegotiation of the police union contract.

But the Philly activists who have been protesting police brutality aren’t satisfied. Deandra Jefferson, an organizer with the group Philly for Real Justice, says many of Kenney’s proposals seem to abide by the philosophy of “the police try to police themselves. We’ve tried that before. It just doesn’t work.” Shakira King, a longtime community organizer, isn’t reassured, either. “I don’t think any of it is what we are actually asking for, and that’s a problem,” she says.

Here’s what’s inside Kenney’s reform package, and what the activist community is still demanding.

Establishing a True Oversight Body

Philadelphia already has an independent civilian advisory body known as the Police Advisory Commission (PAC). The problem is that it has little authority to do much of anything. The PAC writes policy proposals, but at the end of the day, says executive director Hans Menos, “We can’t compel the police department to make any changes.”

Meanwhile, Philly’s PAC is hamstrung in another critical arena: It currently has little investigatory or oversight power. It can’t investigate officer misconduct in real time — even when that officer misconduct was reported to the PAC. That responsibility falls to the police department. The best the PAC can do is review internal police investigations after they’ve already been completed and discipline has been meted out (or not). “It is highly unusual — except for policing — that an entity investigates itself, holds itself accountable, and fills out its own report cards,” says Menos.

Even in its post-investigation review of a recent high-profile incident where officers were caught making racist posts on Facebook, the PAC had to fight just to get partial access to documents from the city. In a statement, a city spokesperson said the city had to keep some materials privileged for fear of jeopardizing the arbitration process, “which is already notorious for giving problematic officers their jobs back.”

So how to make the PAC actually impactful? Kenney would create a stronger oversight board in place of the PAC, more in line with those that exist in New York City and Chicago. In both cities, the oversight board gets to investigate officers in real time, alongside the police department, and can make disciplinary recommendations. Notably, the New York City oversight board was able to oust from the department the officer who killed Eric Garner even after a grand jury declined to return an indictment.

Still, Jefferson, the activist from Philly for Real Justice, argues that New York City and Chicago hardly hold up as templates. Those cities, she says, “have two of most brutal police forces in the country. Is that model we’re trying to live up to?”

Rewriting Police Use-of-Force Protocols

For the government, changing protocols represents the most immediate way to modify police behavior in the short term. According to Kenney’s proposal, commissioner Danielle Outlaw will immediately issue a memo banning the neck-kneeling maneuver that killed George Floyd. The department will also modify its guidelines as to when officers are allowed to draw and point their guns at people and will require officers to report any use of force over police radio.

To the activists, changing these policies won’t make any difference. “Ultimately,” says Jefferson, “what ends up happening is two things: Police either won’t follow that protocol, and then they’ll try to make excuses for why it wasn’t followed on the back end, or they will follow protocol … and will just continue the abuses as before, only it will be co-signed by everyone.”

Kenney’s reform proposal also neglects to address what is arguably the most contentious police policy on the books, and one that has been long decried by civil rights advocates: stop-and-frisk.

In a recent report on Philly’s stop-and-frisk tactics, the ACLU found that black people were twice as likely as white people to be frisked after a stop, and were also more likely to be stopped in general. This held true even in predominately white neighborhoods. In the area around Rittenhouse, the report found, black people comprise less than 10 percent of the population but accounted for more than 70 percent of all stops in the second half of 2019.

Commissioner Outlaw maintained on Tuesday that the tool had some utility if used correctly and insisted police would review stop-and-frisks and punish officers who show racial bias. “There are a lot of tools available to us that if not managed properly can have discrepancies, whether through a racial lens, a gender lens, or an economic lens,” Outlaw said, adding that the recent stop-and-frisk numbers “are trending downward.” While that’s true, nearly 40,000 people were still stopped in the second half of 2019, and one of the main police justifications for stop-and-frisk — recovering contraband from people who are stopped — didn’t yield much. Only 10 percent of people stopped had anything illegal on them — usually drugs. Police found an illegal gun once every 68 stops.

Renegotiate the Police Union Contract

Historically, the Fraternal Order of Police union has been a significant obstacle to police reform. It doesn’t matter if the issue is big or small — the FOP is usually there, fighting the city tooth and nail. Even when Philadelphia made a change that would seem to be completely uncontroversial — banning officers from having offensive tattoos — the FOP fought back (albeit without success). More significantly, when officers are fired from the force for misconduct, the FOP routinely challenges the removals through arbitration. It wins those battles some 70 percent of the time.

That arbitration process is set forth in the collectively bargained police contract, which makes it especially hard to change. Kenney is pledging that for the next contract, set to begin in a year, the administration will seek to modify the arbitration system to ensure that fired officers stay fired, in addition to reestablishing the residency requirement, which would dictate that all police officers must live in the city and actually be members of the community they’re supposedly protecting. (Currently, roughly 30 percent of Philly police live outside the city.)

Still, if past FOP behavior is any indication, it seems unlikely that the union is going to agree to any terms that result in greater oversight. (This is the same union, after all, that has been vocally defending an officer who was caught on camera bashing a protester with a baton and was charged with assault.) To rectify that, Kenney says he supports changing state law governing arbitration, which would give the city greater control over its police personnel — though it would also require approval from the GOP-controlled state legislature (no small feat).

Slash the Police Budget

Mayor Kenney initially proposed a budget for fiscal year 2021 totaling $5.2 billion. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the administration faced a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars, and Kenney soon proposed a new budget of $4.9 billion. Despite the overall budget decrease, the police operating budget actually increased by $14 million in the new proposal, from $746 million to $760 million. On the chopping block, meanwhile, were the Office of Arts and Culture, which was set to be eliminated entirely, and the PAC, which would have seen a cut of 20 percent.

The new budget, with its increase for police and cuts for everyone else, proved an easy target for activists. Asa Khalif, a longtime anti-police-brutality organizer, says the government should “take some of that money they put into funding and committing violence against people of color and put it in schools, invest it in neighborhoods, invest it in health care.”

The 14 City Councilmembers who sent a letter to Mayor Kenney agreed. “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,” they wrote.

On Tuesday, Kenney took the $14 million increase for police off the table. Still, this isn’t so much a defunding of police as it is a return to the status quo. “It’s not just that we don’t want the additional $14 million to go to police,” says King, the community organizer. “The problem is the actual police.” Which brings us to the fundamental disagreement that remains between Mayor Kenney and the activist community.

Defund or Abolish the Police Altogether?

There’s been a lot of national conversation recently about a more fundamental idea: that the police can’t be reformed and therefore ought to be defunded — a step toward abolishing them altogether. This isn’t a call for anarchy or lawlessness; rather, it’s an admission that police have been tasked with handling too many of society’s problems — things like homelessness and drug addiction — and aren’t especially good at dealing with them.

The central idea behind the philosophy is that money spent on police could better be spent elsewhere, reallocated to important social services that provide people with jobs, counseling and health care — all of which could help prevent many of the structural issues that produce crime in the first place. Defunding might start the process by whittling the police down into a smaller organization that only handles the most violent crimes. Police abolition takes the final step of eliminating that small police force and replacing it with a community-led organization. (This would also be accompanied by prison abolition; many current crimes, like sex work and drug use, would be decriminalized, and the investment in social services would, abolitionists say, do a much better job at rehabilitation than the current mix of state-owned and for-profit prisons.)

At a press conference on Tuesday, Kenney said he didn’t believe in defunding the police to zero and disbanding the force. “We believe we can police better,” he said. Still, he appeared to signal some agreement with the fundamental premise of defunding the police. “There are a lot of things we expect police to do that they probably shouldn’t be doing or could be done better by agencies within the city,” Kenney said. “Sometimes it’s mental health issues, addiction issues, truancy issues, domestic disputes, neighbor disputes — there are lots of areas where we could look at how we deliver services and which department delivers those services.”

To the activists, who have their own list of demands, that’s still all talk — especially considering that Kenney’s newest police budget simply reverts department funding to 2020 levels. Even an ostensibly extreme action like disbanding the police, as Camden did in 2013, wasn’t really such a huge change, Jefferson argues. The Camden P.D. may have ceased to exist, but it was replaced by a new organization that looked a lot like a regular police department — or, as Jefferson says, “another militarized occupying force in the neighborhood.”

Fundamentally, a true defunding of police would require a total shift in how we understand the role of law enforcement in our society. In this world, police would have to be eliminated, the activists argue, because of their racist institutional history. “How many years have we tried reforming?” says Jefferson. “It doesn’t work when the basis of police was to ensure enslaved people stayed enslaved.”