Not a Goal Met, But A Vital First Step

By , Vice President, Triage Response Team

The recently released audit of the Philadelphia Police Department is a powerful and indispensable document–and we dare not see its publication as a goal met, but as the first step forward in an urgent and long-overdue process.

I've had a hand in that process for much of the last five years, first as the Executive Director of the city's Police Advisory Commission, from 2017-2020, and more recently as the Vice President of the Triage Response Team at the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), one of the three outside agencies asked to provide input and feedback on the audit.

Over the course of nine months, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart and her team uncovered a number of areas in critical need of overhaul at PPD, ranging from outdated systems and practices, to 911 call response times that vary according to the racial makeup of the district from which the call came. Together, her office's findings represent a resounding validation of what Black and Brown residents of Philadelphia have said for years: The city's public safety system is fundamentally inequitable, and their communities do not feel safe.

There has been pushback, of course, as there always is when Black and Brown people call out racial biases in the policies, systems, and institutions that shape their lives. Police Union head John McNesby, for instance, has insisted that PPD officers respond to calls for service without regard to race, but the data show such arguments to be what they've always been, a smokescreen behind which those who don't want to be held accountable try their best to hide.

More than anything, though, the pushback serves to underscore the audit's importance. The audit found, for example, that PPD's main crime-fighting strategy, Operation Pinpoint, has never been submitted to any kind of evaluation; uncovered the extent to which a tax-free benefit provided to officers injured on duty is ripe for abuse; and established that districts with the highest population of white residents had 911 response times that were more than twice as fast as majority nonwhite districts. Of course, context and the impact of factors such as poverty, addiction, and mental health are important, but must not be used as an excuse for a lack of meaningful action.

Among the report's recommendations is one that is, perhaps, deceptively simple: The report calls on PPD to reconsider the allocation of its resources, in order to respond strategically to "the voiced concerns and needs of the communities it serves." Yet, Black and Brown communities can attest that should their city's public safety system begin to solicit and attend to their concerns and needs, the effect would be transformational–because it has happened so little in the past.

That, then, is where PPD and the city of Philadelphia, its leaders, and its residents, must begin: with the concerns, lived experiences, and wisdom of the people who have carried the traumas of inequitable policing for far too many years. If the city is to realize a public safety system that is responsive to the needs of the community, that work must be grounded in the data, analysis, and recommendations of the Controller's report.

Another issue raised throughout the audit is the question of hiring and retention. As in law enforcement agencies across the country, recruitment is not keeping pace with attrition at PPD, and a force that is overstretched will find it even harder to grapple effectively with the other problems it must begin to face. The answer is not, though, and can never be to keep quiet about the tremendous harms that inequitable policing causes in Black and Brown communities. Instead, the Controller's report must serve as a launch pad for transformation in the city's public safety system, one that will both make more efficient use of the department's resources, and begin to meet the needs of everyone that the city, its policies, and its law enforcement officers are meant to serve.

CPE has a wealth of experience participating in similar reviews in other cities and I can say, without hesitation or caveat, that the process is never easy, short, or simple. The work of uprooting injustice, healing trauma, and building something better never is.

But this audit is an excellent and hard-earned first step. As a resident of this city, I'm very grateful to the Controller's office for their dedication to the task set before them, willingness to follow the facts, and commitment to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it might make some; as a representative of CPE who had the good fortune to work closely with Rhynhart and her team in the course of the audit, they have my deep respect.

And now it's time to keep working. The Black and Brown people of Philadelphia have already waited far too long.