Philly could get a fleet of traffic cops to cut gridlock and boost safety

They wouldn’t carry guns or be able to make arrests.

A regular PPD officer posted at 16th and Chestnut

A regular PPD officer posted at 16th and Chestnut

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Updated Mar. 8

If you’re the type to keep your Lyft driver waiting while you search the house for your keys, know that come May 2020, this behavior may no longer fly.

By then, Philly might have an entire fleet of traffic cops to hustle that car from the curb.

With a massive influx of new jobs and new residents in the past few years, plus more delivery and ride-share services, traffic in Philadelphia has gotten more stubborn. That’s meant more gridlock, and also more crashes.

The time it takes to drive from Broad to 23rd Street on Chestnut, Sansom or Walnut increased up to 20 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to the Center City District. Last year, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia tallied 103 traffic fatalities — including eight children.

To help curb the worsening congestion, Council President Darrell Clarke suggested forming a new class of Public Safety Enforcement Officers.

The concept, first introduced six months ago, made progress this week as the Committee on Law and Government heard formal testimony. If approved, it’ll show up as a ballot question during the May election, when voters will decide whether to amend the Home Rule Charter and establish these PSEOs.

At the hearing on Monday, attended by reps from the Mayor’s Office, the PPD, cycling activists, neighborhood leaders and others, it appeared the idea had wide support — although stakeholders also raised some serious questions.

Right now, the plan still lacks key details, including how much it would cost, the officers’ exact duties, and what kinds of training they’d receive.

No guns or arrest powers

As described in Clarke’s resolution, Public Safety Enforcement Officers would be a new class of employees who’d provide assistance to the city’s regular police force. They’d watch Philly streets for Vision Zero infractions and traffic issues, help out with special events and enforce quality-of-life crime prevention. These officers would not carry firearms, or have the authority to arrest anyone.

Enforcement agencies like this already exist in cities like New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Chicago — and the idea isn’t entirely new to Philly, either.

“This is something we’ve been talking about for quite some time,” Clarke noted, “going back a number of administrations and a number of police commissioners.”

The city has taken to deploying regular police officers to problem spots on an as-needed basis. While that band-aid may have worked in previous years, the issue has become more pressing. That was highlighted at Monday’s hearing when Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. called out traffic as the reason he’d walked into the room late.

“As we grow exponentially, some of the unintended consequences are traffic,” Jones said. “It’s not just Center City…. It goes all the way up to the 4th or the 8th District.”

If approved by voters in May, city government would have have a year to get the PSEOs on the ground.

More info needed on duties and training

The union representing Philly’s regular police force, FOP Lodge 5, has opposed this measure from the start. It conflicts with a Pennsylvania statute reserving traffic enforcement powers for state and local police, FOP president John McNesby told The Inquirer last year.

For some who testified at the resolution hearing this week, other unanswered questions were also pressing.

There’s not yet any estimate of how many cops would be employed, or how much they’d cost taxpayers — but it’s certain to have some associated price tag. In his testimony, Economy League’s Jeff Hornstein wondered aloud whether this is really the best use of public funds in a city with ongoing addiction and homelessness epidemics.

Another red flag for those who testified: No specific training program has been laid out. Regan Cooper, who serves as chair of the South Philly neighborhood group Friends of Gold Star Park, said she’s optimistic about the idea — but worries the traffic cops would disproportionately punish residents of color.

“Our community is rapidly gentrifying,” Cooper told the committee. “We feel racial bias training is important to ensure minority residents aren’t disproportionately targeted.”

Representing the umbrella civic association group Crosstown Coalition, Judy Applebaum echoed that sentiment. She also noted that even aspects as fundamental as the officers’ duties have not yet been completely defined. It’s unclear what “qualify-of-life” enforcement responsibilities would entail, she said.

“We simply need more information,” Applebaum said at the hearing.

Clarke stated that he’s working on amendments to clarify the murkier aspects of the resolution. Still, even without specifics, his idea has garnered support from the Mayor’s Office, the Police Department, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Center City District.

The committee passed the resolution onto the full City Council almost unanimously — with just one dissenting vote from Councilman David Oh.

Clarke’s main pitch is that his resolution will bring Philly’s traffic handling into the modern era: “We need to move our city to a point where municipalities across the country already are.”

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