Council to limit public comment on police spending

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

For more than a week, protesters have been marching through Philadelphia’s streets yelling “no justice, no peace” and raising signs that say “defund the police.”

However, most of them will not have the chance to chime in, at least verbally, on the Police Department’s budget before City Council votes on the city’s overall budget.

Mayor Jim Kenney revised his spending plan following COVID-19-related revenue losses, making $341 million in cuts compared to his initial proposal. Most areas were slashed, and some departments saw deep cuts, but not the police.

Kenney’s new proposal includes $14 million more for the PPD than his original budget, and $12 million more than the city projects to spend on policing this year.

The development has angered those in the streets and led to a deluge of people registering to speak at Council’s virtual budget hearing at 3 p.m. Tuesday, currently scheduled to be the last chance for public comment before a final vote.

All who signed up to speak were sent an automatic email informing them that only the first 60 people who submitted their names will be guaranteed a slot. An additional 30 people will be selected through a lottery Monday afternoon.

It feels like the public is being “shoved to the side,” said Monica Robinson, a freelance journalist and Roxborough resident who signed up to testify.

She planned to ask Council to consider diverting the $14 million to community programming, but now she doesn’t know whether she will get the opportunity to deliver that message.

“They’re hiding it a little bit and trying to push it under the rug when it really should be something that we’re talking about,” Robinson said.

Joe Grace, a spokesman for Council President Darrell Clarke, said everyone can submit their thoughts by writing an email to [email protected] He said Council members will review all public testimony.

“There are a very large number of people who’ve expressed interest in testifying,” he said in an email. “Council will do its best to accommodate every member of the public, either verbally or in writing.”

Grace noted that Tuesday’s feedback session will be the third budget hearing open for public comment and said the pandemic has forced Council to switch to the virtual format.

Robinson expressed doubts as to whether every Council member would read every letter.

“It’s a lot more powerful to hear people speak,” she added.

A group of self-described “radical Black local organizations,” including Black Lives Matter Philly is calling for the proposed $14 million increase to the police department to be redistributed to the School District of Philadelphia for lead and asbestos removal.

In a list of demands published recently, the group, dubbed the “Black Philly Radical Collective,” also called on the city to gradually defund the department over the next five years, with the goal of eliminating the PPD.

“We demand these resources be diverted from policing to longstanding community-led organizations working to support returning citizens and build strategies that enable Black people to address their own conflicts and struggles in a manner that centers transformative justice and eliminates punitive systems of behavior change,” the collective said in a letter.

The group is also advocating for legislation that would dissolve other law enforcement agencies immediately, including SEPTA Transit Police and university police departments.

Officials from Kenney’s administration said the police department’s proposed budget is aimed at helping reduce gun violence and reforming the department.

It includes money for anti-racist trainings, body cameras, additional staff in the intelligence bureau and funding to help cover salary increases related to a one-year contract extension agreed to by the Fraternal Order of Police in the wake of the coronavirus, according to the Mayor’s Office.

“We all have reasons to be deeply disturbed by systemic racism that has plagued our society for far too long, including disparities in policing, and we appreciate residents’ civic engagement and action to hold the city accountable,” Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said in a statement.

“This funding proposal is a direct response to the concerns we hear from individual residents and communities all across Philadelphia,” he added.

For more information on Council’s budget hearing schedule, go to phlcouncil.com/budget2021.

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