Protesters rallied outside the Philly police headquarters to demand the firing of officers identified in the Facebook database. Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Civil rights groups, activists, and politicians in Philadelphia are ramping up pressure on Mayor Jim Kenney to reform the city’s police union contract before the current deal expires in 2020.

A letter to the mayor sent Wednesday seeks sweeping accountability measures in the new agreement to be negotiated by the mayor’s administration and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which represents over 6,000 of city cops. Talks begin next month.

The big asks? Changes to the police grievance arbitration process, expanded residency requirements for officers and increased transparency in the hiring of a new police commissioner.

So far, the city has only acknowledged it plans to revisit the residency requirement. Since 2012, officers with five or more years of experience on the force are permitted to live outside the city. Nearly one in three officers do not live in Philly proper, according to the Inquirer.

Arbitration will likely prove to be the most divisive issue. It’s a common union process codified in Pennsylvania labor law, but in practice, it has allowed terminated officers to get reinstated regardless of their offense — often with back pay. An Inquirer investigation found the arbitration system overturned disciplinary rulings for more than 100 officers over the last decade, costing taxpayers millions in payouts.

The letter to Kenney is accompanied by a public petition asking for more signatures.

Backing groups include the interfaith organization POWER, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Color of Change and the Media Mobilizing Project. Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Derek Green, Helen Gym and Councilmembers-elect Kendra Brooks, Jamie Gauthier, Isaiah Thomas and Kathy Gilmore-Richardson have also signed on.

Rev. Mark Tyler, with POWER, said he respects union protection for workers, but noted how often problematic officers have found their way back onto the force with ease.

Police should be held to a higher standard than other city employees, he said. He also hopes the petition will create more transparency around the typically shrouded negotiation.

“When you’re talking about [firefighters], when you’re talking about teachers, you’re not talking about people with the power, literally, of life and death on their hip,” Tyler told Billy Penn. “It is critical at this moment that the process be opened up and community be allowed to see what is happening.”

The petition is an unusual move. Recent police contracts have been negotiated behind closed doors — and without much fanfare.

Accountability demand follows tumultuous year

This year has brought massive upheaval for the Philadelphia Police Department.

The PPD stood center stage in the national probe of offensive Facebook posts, which ended with 15 police officers being targeted for termination. Nine of the officers retired before they were fired. Under current arbitration guidelines, the rest could end up back in uniform.

“Most of them, through arbitration, will probably get their jobs back,” Rev. Tyler said. “The commissioner quite frankly knew that it would be a waste of time firing most of them because of arbitration.”

FOP leadership declined to comment on the contract.

The city has some ability to negotiate concessions around arbitration, but it remains unclear whether Kenney will push for those reforms.

“The administration appreciates the feedback from members of the community, but we will not be negotiating any contracts in the press,” Lauren Cox, a spokesperson for Kenney’s labor team, told Billy Penn.

Beyond the Facebook probe, the department has endured numerous scandals this year.

Former Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned this summer amid allegations of mishandling a sexual misconduct complaint. Numerous other officers have been terminated this year for separate misconduct issues. Six officers were shot in a summer North Philly standoff that shocked the city. The homicide and shooting rate continue to climb.

Meanwhile, Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby has sparred with critics, like Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who have been calling for more accountability and reforms to the department. The FOP head and other law enforcement officials have also been blaming the city’s crime on what they call lax policies of District Attorney Larry Krasner.

All this makes for a combustible situation as Kenney negotiates a new police contract.

The coalition’s letter calls the current moment a “crisis of accountability.” In addition to the grievance arbitration process, it calls for “an independent, civilian-run police oversight agency that is adequately funded” to oversee departmental operations.

The city does already have the Police Advisory Commission. Part of the Mayor’s office, it was established to provide oversight of the department in the 1990s. Via a ballot question last year, voters increased the commission’s budget to $500,000 annually. PAC officials recently said the police department has stonewalled the commission from access to internal investigations, specifically around the Facebook probe.

“When the city negotiates this contract, we want the mayor and his team to remember that the people of Philadelphia deserve to be treated with fairness and respect by police officers and that the contract should reflect that commitment,” said Andy Hoover, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The advocates and lawmakers singing onto the letter also support:

  • Increased transparency in the selection of a new police commissioner
  • A city residency requirement for all police officers
  • Mandatory reporting of use of excessive force and other officer misconduct
  • Ending the use of so-called ‘stop and frisk’ — a controversial policy debate. Mayor Jim Kenney campaigned on ending the practice back in 2015, but has since backed off.

Cox, the mayoral spokesperson, said the administration is still working on a draft of the contract.

“It has not yet been delivered to the FOP,” Cox wrote in an email. “The exchange normally happens much closer to the deadline.”

Kenney must deliver a draft of a new proposed contract by Jan. 1, 2020. The current contract expires next June.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...