This story is part of TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long series that will track how and where the region’s government, philanthropic, civic and private sector is working toward a more just recovery.
This summer’s protest pushed Mayor Jim Kenney to remove the Frank Rizzo statue from Center City and make Juneteenth a 2020 city holiday.
More substantially, he announced the creation of a Pathways to Reform, Transformation and Reconciliation Steering Committee, a diverse group of external stakeholders and internal administration senior leaders tasked with building a city-wide culture of racial justice and equity.
After 11 meetings, the group has released its first progress report in its four areas of concern — public safety, health, economic recovery and community engagement. The report covers the committee’s first 120 days of operation.
The most prominent area of change is policing.
More than 1,000 people are killed by police every year in America, and Black people are three times more likely to be killed than white people. It was the death in May of George Floyd after police officer Derek Chauvin was videotaped kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes, that ignited international furor and protests against police brutality.
As a result, police departments across the country are reviewing their use of force policies and Philadelphia has been no different. According to the steering committee’s report, one change made of its first four months was to prohibit “kneeling on a person’s head or neck” which aligns with recently enacted legislation.
Also, the no-knock warrant has also been banned. A no-knock warrant allows police officers to enter without knocking first and announcing their presence or purpose. A 2014 American Civil Liberties Union report on police militarization found 54 percent percent of SWAT team raids targeted people of color. It was a no-knock warrant that lead to the death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, who was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky apartment on March 13, 2020.
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In addition, the police department is in collaboration with the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) to develop an alternative response model for people in the throes of a mental health episode. This is an issue that has surged in urgency in the wake of the death of Walter Wallace, Jr. who was in the midst of a psychological episode when he was killed by police officers on October 26.. The shooting ignited looting, protest and debates about the need for alternatives responses.
David Ayers, criminal justice program manager at DBHIDS talked about the program during the Mayor’s Office of Black Male Engagement’s recent zoom conference on gun violence. He said DBHID is part of a multi-agency collaboration to help find the “most appropriate response” to a 911 call.
“Is it a police response, a behavioral health and police response or a behavioral health response?” The program is in its early stages of development and its first step has been to embed a mental health navigator into the Police Department’s 9-1-1 radio room to better understand the actual emergency calls coming into the unit.
The steering committee’s community engagement efforts have also been connected to policing — this time supporting the police with the goal of strengthening relationships with communities. On October 8, the Office of Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs hosted the first session of “Law, Order, & God,” a multi-part engagement focusing on faith and public safety with members of Vine Memorial Baptist Church. The series will continue in November.
The progress report acknowledged the economic problems that have devastated the city, and particularly minority residents, as a result of the pandemic. For example, between March 15 and August 1, according to the Respond Restart Recharge Reimagine: An Equitable and Inclusive Economic Recovery for Philadelphia report, Philadelphians filed initial unemployment compensation claims on an average of 10,038 per week. The average prior to the pandemic was 1, 137 per week.
Sylvie Gallier Howard, acting commerce director, said, “From an economic standpoint, that means increasing investment in historically disadvantaged communities, supporting the growth of small businesses owned by people of color, and identifying solutions to address the barriers that prevent Philadelphians — particularly Black and brown residents — from accessing family-sustaining career opportunities.”
Finally, the public health department is beginning to address the disparities highlighted by the pandemic. “The Coronavirus Interim Racial Equity Plan summarizes what the Philadelphia Department of Public Health knows about racial and ethnic inequities and COVID-19, and most importantly, what we are doing and planning to do in order to reduce those disparities that have been affecting Black and brown communities for centuries,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, Philadelphia’s health commissioner.-30-
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