(Photo by Julie Zeglen)
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 is how the city’s Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation initiative graded itself on the advancement it has made during the past six months toward its broad goal of eradicating systemic racism in the city.
So far, voters have demanded more potent community oversight of the police department, the health department is embroiled in a scandal that forces City Council and others to question its commitment to equity, and the City, the largest poor city in America before the pandemic, is in its worst economic shape since the Great Depression.
Despite making meaningful progress, the pain points are still sharp.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced the Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation initiative last June after waves of protest against police brutality and systemic injustice rocked the city. “It’s become increasing obvious to me that our administration and all those in public service need to find a better way to listen,” he said at the time.
When releasing the six-month update last week, Kenney was more upbeat. “I am excited about the progress we’ve made, and for the enduring path towards reconciliation.”
It was the brutal death of George Floyd, by a police officer who pressed his knee into his neck for a breathtaking eight minutes as he lay pinned on the ground in handcuffs, that touched off an international firestorm. The incident was captured by video which went viral. According to the World Economic Forum, the international protests included people from over 60 countries and 2,000 cities and towns in the US.
Protest came to Philadelphia May 30,five days after the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, and lasted through a tense June. It was a mixture of peaceful protest, violent police encounters and looting. Police say 378 fires were set and 246 commercial burglaries were committed, leaving many small businesses, already struggling with COVID-19, closer to shuttering their doors. Over 2,000 people were arrested. Both Philadelphia’s Office of the Controller and Police Department hired outside consultants to do an internal review of the protest. They have both issued reports detailing mistakes and missteps.
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“As many Philadelphians expressed their First Amendment rights and justified anger in the days following George Floyd’s murder, our government failed us,” concluded City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.
For Kenney, the police review was more about lessons learned. “The report, in my view, provides a comprehensive blueprint for long-lasting police and emergency response reform in the city. I look forward to implementation of the recommendations.”
The Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation initiative is led by a steering committee that has met 16 times since June. The three co-chairs are all city officials: Cynthia Figueroa, deputy mayor for the Office of Children and Families; Nefertiri Sickout, acting chief Diversity, Equity an Inclusion officer and Acting City Solicitor Diana Cortes , who with her November appointment became the city’s first Latina in the post.
But the process is less truth and reconciliation — a grassroots-driven process designed to help community members come to terms with past violence and increase awareness of trauma — and more think tank.
The steering committee includes a 42-member internal work group of city officials and 48 community members who review and revise current policies and procedures with an equity lens. The group’s charge is to focus on some of the city’s most divisive areas: police reform and public safety, public health, economic recovery, and community engagement.
Here’s an update on some of the group’s progress:
Police Reform and Public Safety
City voters in November approved the ballot question replacing the Police Advisory Commission (PAC) with the more powerful Citizen’s Police Oversight Commission (CPOC). This new commission has the power to investigate citizen complaints and to subpoena officers, compelling the to testify. City Councilman Curtis Jones introduced enabling legislation for the oversight commission last week and expects the commission to be operational by summer. A public meeting on the CPOC will be held by the PAC at 6 p.m. on February 22. Residents can access the Zoom meeting at: https://tinyurl.com/PACFeb21
In addition, the fatal shooting of Walter Wallace, Jr. in October hastened the plan to use behavior health teams in policing. Wallace, who had a history of mental illness, was shot and killed after brandishing a knife. A trained co-responder team of behavioral health specialists combined with officers trained in crisis intervention may have been able to de-escalate the situation before it resulted in lethal force. The police department is in the process of rolling out four co-responder teams with mental health professionals contracted by the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS).
Police Commissioner Denise Outlaw, who celebrated her first year in office this month, said, “We’re diligently making strides towards the collective goal of increasing safety throughout Philadelphia, aligning policies, and transformational efforts throughout the City for meaningful progress.”
Controversy has seriously marred the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) vaccination rollout. According to the latest city data, 55% of the vaccine supply has gone to while patients. PDPH had partnered with Philly Fighting Covid (PFC), allegedly a new nonprofit with an interest in vaccinating the hard to reach.
PFC, which had been running COVID testing sites and, according to its website, tested “more than 20,000 people in neighborhoods with inequitable access to quality healthcare.” With its equity bona fides seemingly established, PFC partnered with the PDPH to open the city’s first mass vaccination site with a goal to vaccinate the harder to reach residents.
The scandal started with PFC failure to disclose that it had changed its status to for-profit with a business plan to profit from the vaccination site. Then accusations of data privacy breaches and vaccine theft emerged. Within two weeks of opening the center at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, the City shut it down.
What started as a way to ensure equity in the vaccination rollout ended in recriminations. Kenny has ordered PDPH Commissioner Thomas Farley to issue a public report detailing the fiasco. City Council, too, is having hearings. In the meanwhile, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will vaccinate school-based staff at Philadelphia schools and the health department is looking to expand its network of vaccine providers. Read the RFP
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York not only were Black workers, women, people in low-paying jobs most at risk for getting COVID-19, they were hit the hardest and most likely to become unemployed during the pandemic.
Small local business are equally vulnerable and are at risk of not surviving until the economy is totally opened.
This makes economic recovery a top of the list item for the steering committee. The City has pumped $7 million more into the Philadelphia Taking Care of Business (PHL TCB) Clean Corridors Program, which funds community-based nonprofits to hire cleaning crews at $15/hour for their neighborhood commercial corridor. The extra money will expand the cleaning efforts from 49 commercial corridors to 85.
There’s also the fairly new Philadelphia COVID-19 Restaurant and Gym Relief Program, a $12 million grant program with priority given to businesses in high-poverty areas — which opened in late January but just closed on February 9.
“To recover equitably, partnership and collaboration will be needed on a scale never seen before,” said Michael A. Rashid, the city’s Commerce director.-30-
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