Philly to commission investigation on police behavior during protests

A June 1 incident where authorities used tear gas on protesters who had flooded onto the Vine Street Expressway will be one focus of an investigation into the Philadelphia Police Department’s handling of protests and riots. 
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

The city will hire an outside consultant to investigate the Philadelphia Police Department’s handling of protests and riots following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Municipal leaders announced the initiative Monday and said the scope of the review is still being drafted.

However, independent examiners will likely be gathering evidence, including internal police documents, body camera footage, social media posts and news reports, to look at incidents where officers used force and deployed tear gas.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, in a statement accompanying the announcement, said she witnessed “inappropriate use of force and other conduct that I do not condone.”

Consultants may also interview witnesses, evaluate PPD’s deployment strategies and produce a final report, which officials said will be released to the public. Outlaw said she will also provide updates on investigators’ preliminary findings.

“We absolutely must do better to build trust with our communities, and our response to the recent demonstrations further highlighted the amount of work we have before us,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement.

Mayor Jim Kenney on Monday said the city would never support using force on peaceful protesters.  PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, a union that represents PPD officers, slammed the move, and its president, John McNesby, appeared to take a shot at Outlaw.

“We just hired an ‘independent’ outside police commissioner,” McNesby said in a statement. “There is absolutely no need for yet another ‘independent’ second guesser.”

Outlaw, the former police chief in Portland, Oregon, is new to Philadelphia and took over the department in February.

McNesby said the city hires independent consultants as a way to funnel money to favored law firms in exchange for campaign donations down the line. He called city leaders “cowards and frauds” who know nothing about police work.

“The total and complete lack of support, courage and leadership from this administration is quietly leading to a paralysis of law enforcement in Philadelphia which will only endanger our citizens,” McNesby said.

A June 1 incident where authorities used tear gas on protesters who had flooded onto the Vine Street Expressway will probably be one focus of the independent investigation.

Law enforcement officials have said gas was used after demonstrators surrounded a State Police vehicle, though that account has been disputed by some who were at the scene.

The I-676 episode drew national attention and criticism. A video also surfaced showing an officer running up to protesters and spraying chemicals in their faces.

Last week, Managing Director Brian Abernathy said a group that included himself, Kenney, Outlaw and other high-ranking administration officials authorized the use of “less lethal munitions,” which include tear gas and rubber bullets, during a meeting May 31.

An on-site commander made the final call to allow gas to be used to disperse the crowd, according to police. Chemicals were also used May 31 in West Philadelphia.

Kenney on Monday attempted to distance himself from the Vine Street Expressway incident by saying the city would never support using force on peaceful protesters.

“The PPD was permitted to use certain measures when absolutely necessary in violent situations—if and only if, lesser methods did not stop the violent behavior,” the mayor said. “We did not, and would never, pre-authorize or give police officers free rein to use any type of force against peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional rights.”

PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Kenney said he has asked the PPD to revise its policies to clarify when officers can use tear gas and rubber bullets. In addition, any officers who used inappropriate force will be dealt with “swiftly and accordingly,” he said.

A police supervisor, Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna, has been charged with first-degree felony aggravated assault and other crimes after he was caught on camera hitting a protester with a baton June 1.

The FOP has defended Bologna and painted the case as a politically motivated maneuver by reform-minded District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Officials said the consultant could be one firm or a group of organizations. A budget and timetable for the review have not been determined.

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