The city’s response to the Controller’s report on the use of tear gas last summer was disappointing and suspect. It was disappointing that Mayor Kenney has not responded. It is suspect that the only one speaking out is Police Commissioner Outlaw. Could she perhaps be a convenient scapegoat? Regardless of the repeated deflections and deafening silence, the facts speak for themselves. The city failed us, plain and simple. The inept response to last summer’s unrest deserves acknowledgment from our leaders and a specific plan on how they will do better.
The report confirms that the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) was ill-equipped and repeatedly committed violence against citizens while watching the destruction of millions of dollars of property in Center City. According to the report, all of this was due to poor planning and absentee leadership.
In addition to this report, Philadelphians have told their chilling stories of violence at the hands of police to City Council spoken at FOP Contract negotiation hearings, spoken with national media outlets, and even appealed to the United Nations. Just as we were wondering how many times state-sanctioned terror needed to be retold for someone to be held accountable, the Mayor released his investigation on the matter. The Inquirer Editorial Board aptly described it as a “crime scene with no fingerprints.” Finally, the Controller report is clear: the buck stops with Mayor Jim Kenny.
Despite months of public outcry, few officers have faced repercussions for their part in perpetuating harm against unarmed residents. The PPD now faces several lawsuits for their mass battery, and some of that financial burden will be borne by the same taxpayers assaulted by the PPD. The lack of accountability within the PPD and continued approval for additional funding paint a picture of police impunity and a lack of leadership.
As two members of the Community Advisory Accountability Council, we know that many of our co-members believe that the inherent racist violence in policing is an important factor that triggered widespread looting. As our city continues to struggle to stay afloat in an unprecedented economic downturn caused by COVID 19, our leaders have shirked their responsibility to fund public programs, maintained a bloated police budget and provided excessive tax breaks for our wealthiest institutions. Skyrocketing unemployment combined with a lack of COVID stimulus have thrust a growing number of residents into unprecedented poverty. In short, the negligence of city officials in addressing these economic issues, combined with their inability to confront widespread white-supremacy in policing, is putting residents and businesses at risk for more unrest.
We cannot afford to wait and see if our failed leaders can turn this ship around. We are already sinking. Calls for Mayor Kenny and Commissioner Outlaw’s resignations last summer were prophetic. The resurgence of those calls in light of this report is the least we can expect, but is Philly ready to demand that level of accountability from our leaders?
This report shows us that the wrongs documented cannot be rectified by banal calls for things like implicit bias training, body cameras, and more police. That’s why members of the Community Advisory Accountability Council have worked hard to include tools like community control of police, reforms for ACT 111, and a radical reimagining of public safety which centers police free alternatives promoting community care — not criminalization.
We require leaders who are audacious in their willingness to act on brave reforms and social programs if we hope to avoid another summer of upheaval. What the city’s response to this report proves is that we can’t count on our failed leaders to enact the transformative changes we so desperately need if they can’t accept responsibility or face the root causes of the public’s righteous anger. With his infamous “hands off” approach to city governance, we know that Mayor Kenny just isn’t up for the task.
Our Community Council of diverse Philadelphians worked many hours reviewing the investigative materials to assure clarity, authenticity of narrative and the development of a Call to Action that represents the call of the people for a more just society. If Mayor Kenney repeatedly refuses to listen, respond or act, it is time to find someone who will. The necessary transformation of our democracy must have trustworthy and competent leadership that can change course and be brave enough to sail uncharted waters. Perhaps most importantly, we must demand leaders who won’t leave us to be swallowed by the raging waves of corruption, deception, and systemic racism in law enforcement and governance of our city.
By Yvonne Haskins and Garlen Capita
Yvonne and Garlen have decades of experience in community organizing in both their private and professional lives. They were members of the Community Advisory and Accountability Council for Office of the Controller Independent Investigation into the City of Philadelphia’s Response to Civil Unrest and are members of Penn Community for Justice.