5 Big Ideas for Improving Public Safety in Philadelphia
With police commissioner Danielle Outlaw departing and a new mayor coming into office, we have an opportunity to change course. Here’s what should happen.
In the late summer of 2022, after six and a half years in office, I resigned my seat on Philadelphia City Council in order to run for mayor. I did it for one simple reason: All I wanted to do was help the city.
While I didn’t win that race — my congratulations to Cherelle Parker, who I think has the potential to be a very good mayor — the truth is, I still care deeply about Philadelphia, and I still want to do everything I can to help it.
That’s why my intention is to keep weighing in on issues that impact all of us in this city, sharing my ideas, opinions and expertise in regular columns. My goal isn’t political — I’m not a candidate for anything — but rather civic. I just want to see Philadelphia, and Philadelphians, thrive.
As has been true for the past several years — and as was made even clearer by this week’s looting — the number one challenge our city faces is public safety. Why? First and foremost, because every citizen of this city deserves to be — and to feel — safe, no matter who you are or where you live. But beyond that basic human right, our perceived lack of safety holds us back in other ways. It’s the reason some residents have left the city, including well-off empty nesters who contributed significantly to our tax base. It stops suburbanites and tourists from visiting Philadelphia, hurting us economically. It stops potential transplants from moving here, limiting our growth. It stops companies from doing business here, stifling much-needed opportunity for Philadelphians.
With a new mayor coming into office — and with police commissioner Danielle Outlaw recently announcing her resignation — there’s a prime opportunity for us to go in a new direction. Here are five ideas I encourage Philadelphia to embrace.
Get serious about Kensington.
The situation in Kensington is arguably worse than it’s ever been, but it certainly isn’t new. It’s been an ongoing problem for 25 years — time in which the quality of life in the neighborhood has been devastated and thousands of lives have been destroyed. What’s more, a lot of the safety issues in the city more broadly begin in Kensington. People get on the El and move all over Philadelphia, creating issues in other neighborhoods.
We need to do something bold. Last year, I introduced a resolution in Council calling on the federal, state and local governments to use their powers to declare a state of emergency in Kensington and work with community partners on the ground on a serious plan to address the crisis. To me, what’s happened there is no different than if a major natural disaster had hit: It’s a FEMA site, and we need to approach it that way. All levels of government — including the federal government — should be involved.
As for what should be included in that plan: We need to get people off the streets and into treatment, but just as important, we need to stop the drug dealing completely — not cut it back, but stop it. Because until you eliminate it, the problem won’t go away. You can take every addicted person off the street today, but if you don’t go after the drug dealers, you’ll have hundreds of addicted people back in Kensington tomorrow. You have to cut off the supply. By declaring a state of emergency, we’d be able to improve public-safety patrols and reduce gun violence while arresting and prosecuting the people who make money selling drugs.
Meanwhile, I also believe we should create a special services district in Kensington, similar to the Center City District. This district, which would potentially run from Allegheny to Lehigh plus three blocks in both directions, would hire uniformed but unarmed people to be a presence on the streets while funding services like cleanliness initiatives and storefront improvements. Slowly but surely, I believe, people will invest in the neighborhood again, you’ll bring back jobs, and you’ll bring back the community.
For the first 10 years, the city should fund this initiative. After that, the cost can gradually shift to property owners through a small tax. We allowed the situation in Kensington to grow for the past 25 years. We should take responsibility for it.
Double down on alternative ways to deal with defendants.
Over the past couple of decades, Philadelphia has tried different ways of dealing with people who commit lower-level criminal offenses — approaches that put less emphasis on locking people up and more on getting them the help they need. Many of them have worked, and we need to double down on such approaches.
One was the Philadelphia Community Court, which the Center City District had a role in creating in the early 2000s. Its purpose was to deal with the quality-of-life crimes that were happening frequently in the city, from shoplifting and graffiti to prostitution. Rather than being funneled into the traditional justice system, defendants were quickly brought before a judge, then steered into either social services or community service in exchange for a guilty plea. While the court was effective in reducing crime, it lost its funding in 2012 in the wake of the financial crisis. The next mayor should work with the courts and the DA’s office to bring it back.
In more recent years, the city’s Accelerated Misdemeanor Program (AMP) has taken a similar approach in dealing with non-violent criminals who commit lower-level offenses. Research conducted by Penn and published last year in conjunction with the Philadelphia DA’s office found the AMP program was effective in reducing recidivism, with AMP participants having a 35 percent reduction in re-conviction rates. There’s room for AMP to grow, and the city should prioritize it.
Many of the issues around public safety in Philadelphia involve people dealing with mental illness or drug addiction. We need to get them into programs that can actually help them.
Create a public-safety high school.
The spike in crime we’ve seen in the past several years has many causes, but one factor that doesn’t get talked about enough is the shortage of police officers. Between vacant positions and officers out on sick leave, our ranks are down at least 30 percent.
One way to solve that problem — for good — is by establishing one, or maybe several, public-safety high schools. These would be schools where we actually train our own students, from ninth through 12th grade, to become police officers, EMTs or firefighters. Not only would this create a permanent pipeline of people trained to protect public safety; it would put a group of young Philadelphians every year on a pathway to good-paying jobs. (Police officers in Philadelphia have to be 20 years old to serve, so the high school would have to be paired with a cadet program that allows 18- and 19-year-olds to do desk jobs before joining the police force.)
Vocational training has proven effective in other areas. Randolph Career and Technical High School, for instance, prepares hundreds of kids each year for careers in everything from technology and welding to auto repair. We should take the same approach to public safety.
Talk to each other. Every week.
Too many of our public-safety entities in Philadelphia operate in silos. Last year, I hosted several under-the-radar meetings of law enforcement officials in my office, bringing together the police commissioner, the DA, the U.S. Attorney, the FBI, the state Attorney General, and members of the courts to talk about public safety. The conversations were productive.
Our next mayor should hold such meetings on a weekly basis. If we’re going to improve safety in Philadelphia, everyone has to be on the same page and work together as a team. The next mayor has the ability to make that happen.
Hire Charles Ramsey.
Ramsey was one of the most effective police leaders Philadelphia has seen in a long time. I’m not saying the next mayor should bring him back as commissioner, but I would love for the city to hire Ramsey — who still lives in Philadelphia — as a consultant, to guide us on the best strategies and practices. The best leaders I know surround themselves with the smartest people and engage them. When it comes to public safety, they don’t come any smarter – and you don’t get better credentials — than Ramsey.
Will improving public safety in Philadelphia be easy? Of course not. And I don’t claim to have all the answers. But we need to start moving forward, and that begins with putting the best ideas on the table.
Allan Domb served as an at-large member of Philadelphia City Council from 2016 to 2022. He will be contributing regular opinion columns to Philly Mag focused on big ideas for the city.