Here’s the Scathing Investigative Report on the City’s Response to Civil Unrest in 2020
Nearly eight months after police tear gassed protesters on I-676 and in West Philadelphia, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart has released a positively blistering investigative report on the city’s policing and leadership failures surrounding these and other incidents in 2020.
The report is an exhaustive document, the result of an independent investigation conducted by law firm Ballard Spahr in tandem with AT-Risk International, a Virginia-based security and consulting firm. Investigators reviewed more than 1,700 documents and interviewed numerous people: 27 city officials and employees, including Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw; representatives from the campus police departments at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania; and 22 civilians, including protesters and bystanders caught up in the chaos.
One person notably absent from the list of interviewees: Mayor Jim Kenney, whose relationship with Rhynhart has been described as “the most contentious relationship at City Hall.” According to the report, investigators chose not to conduct an interview with Kenney after his office set certain conditions on any potential interview. Namely, Kenney would only do the interview if questions were provided in advance and if any follow-up questions to his answers were submitted in writing.
According to a Kenney spokesperson, “As the Controller is aware, in light of the separation of powers, it would be improper for any Mayor to be interviewed by a separate branch of government without clarity on the specific questions. For him to have agreed to such terms would be unprecedented.”
We’ve published the full 81-page report below. Here are four key points the report makes.
A Failure to Plan
The report points out that the city has successfully policed large scale protests in the past and that it did so, in part, by adequately planning for those protests. But in the case of the George Floyd protests, planning was late and lacking, the report concludes.
George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25th. Large scale protests erupted in Minneapolis and almost immediately found their way to other major American cities. On May 27th, Philadelphia officials were made aware that the city could soon be the site of similar protests and civil unrest, but the report maintains that the government didn’t actually begin to plan for these events until May 29th, one day before protests and riots overtook the city.
A Failure to Lead
“The investigation shows that the root cause of the lack of planning was a lack of leadership at the highest levels,” insists Rhynhart in her introductory statement to the report.
Investigators found that there was a complete breakdown in leadership as events unfolded throughout Philadelphia beginning on May 30th. The report specifically targets then-managing director Brian Abernathy, Outlaw, and Adam Thiel, who serves as both fire commissioner and the head of the office of emergency management, finding that they essentially threw up their hands in defeat as the city literally burned. And, of course, the report mightily faults Mayor Kenney, “the one ultimately responsible for any City emergency response,” writes Rhynhart.
Kenney should have been the one to authorize the use of tear gas in any specific instance, the report concludes, but he effectively left that decision in the hands of Outlaw, whom he knew had authorized the use of tear gas on protesters when she was the chief of police in Portland, Oregon.
A Failure to Show Restraint
Speaking of tear gas, the investigative report goes into great detail about how tear gas came to be deployed on protesters in West Philadelphia and on I-676. The report states that at a police leadership meeting on May 31st, Outlaw “indicated that she was amenable” to using tear gas to quell civil unrest, and that at the end of that meeting, SWAT team members provided Outlaw, her driver and commanding officers from the police force with their own gas masks.
It was later that day when police used tear gas on protesters on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia. One day later, tear gas was deployed on protesters on I-676. Witnesses told investigators they saw police using tear gas near children who were picnicking in a West Philadelphia park and near elderly residents standing outside. And as for the tear gassing on I-676, the report concluded in no uncertain terms that police used tear gas on peaceful demonstrators. According to the report, there was no sufficient warning given prior to the use of tear gas in either location.
“It is also important to spend time reflecting on the fact that teargas was deployed in our city during these events,” Rhynhart writes. “Teargas is banned in warfare and has not been used in Philadelphia for civil unrest since the MOVE crisis in 1985. Despite this, teargas was deployed on our own people several times during the unrest. The negative and painful effects of teargas cannot be overstated, and it should not have been used the way it was.”
A Failure to Police Consistently
Investigators also examined the disparity between how police treated different types of protesters. While protesters in West Philadelphia and on I-676 were greeted with tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear, bat-wielding individuals who stood in support of law enforcement outside of a police precinct in Fishtown and gun-toting people who went to Marconi Plaza to “protect” the Christopher Columbus statue were left alone and, in some cases, even supported by police. In some cases, counter-protesters at those locations were threatened and assaulted while police stood by and did nothing.
Rhynhart connects this disparity to the response to rioters at the Capitol earlier this month.
“There, we saw an extremely different response to domestic terrorists storming a federal building in our nation’s capital with explicit threats to the lives of lawmakers, in stark contrast to largely peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations that took place nearby in the late spring and summer of 2020,” she writes.