How’s this for a cool new drinking game, kids? Do a shot every time you incredulously ask yourself, “Just who’s in charge here?” after hearing the latest tale of incompetence and asleep-at-the-wheel leadership emanating from City Hall.
Trust me, you’ll be feeling nice in no time, and you’ll be feeling not-so-nice the morning after, because the stories of widespread governmental malpractice are so plentiful.
The idea for the drinking game came to me as I leafed through Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s devastating ticktock of the Kenney administration’s Keystone Cop-like response to last summer’s protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. A culture of pass-the-buck leadership leaps off the pages.
Take, for example, our mayor’s passive, tortured decision-making process when it came to authorizing the use of spraying protestors and, it turned out, bystanders with tear gas:
The Police Commissioner explained that although she did not believe that she needed authorization from the Mayor prior to approving use of CS gas, she nevertheless had consulted with the Mayor earlier that afternoon about its potential use.
She chose to do so because when the Mayor interviewed her for the position, the Mayor indicated that he was aware that CS gas and other less-than-lethal munitions were used in Portland in response to protests.
He explained the Department historically did not utilize CS gas against large gatherings, and he personally opposed its use. Yet, when confronted with the potential use of CS gas in the unfolding unrest, the Mayor, while hesitant, ultimately supported its use if absolutely necessary.
With this background, and observing the conditions on 52nd Street in real time, the Police Commissioner authorized the deployment of CS gas without further consulting the Mayor.
The nervousness of our Hamlet of Two Street would be funny, if it weren’t so tragic. This is just one example of what Jim Kenney’s shoulder-shrugging leadership resulted in, according to the report, the product of an investigation conducted by the Ballard Spahr law firm and AT-RISK International, a security service consulting company:
Those who were present on 52nd Street that afternoon note that the Department’s use of CS gas, rubber bullets, and other less-than-lethal munitions went beyond only dispersing violent actors.
According to the Police Commissioner, her authorization to use CS gas was limited in scope to 52nd and Market to 52nd and Chestnut Streets, the focal point of the unrest. However, SWAT’s own documentation, as well as witnesses interviewed and videos reviewed, demonstrate that SWAT deployed CS gas and shot rubber bullets down the 52nd Street corridor as far south as Spruce Street.
Witnesses interviewed noted that the CS gas and rubber bullets were deployed not only along Market Street, but also down side streets where no protest or any improper activity occurred; those side streets intersected with Market Street and flowed through the residential section of the neighborhood. Video reviewed also demonstrates that this occurred. And, those interviewed also described the scene as chaotic…The officers deploying the CS gas and firing rubber bullets were in what many described as “riot gear.”
Some officers carried shields and wore gas masks. None of the civilians interviewed reported hearing any warnings to disperse or to leave the area before police deployed the CS gas and rubber bullets. As these incidents occurred, a large group of individuals began to gather along the 52nd Street corridor to both observe what was occurring and to oppose the strong police presence and show of force.
These individuals who were not involved in rioting or looting, but rather were innocent bystanders, were not only affected by the use of both CS gas and rubber bullets, but in some instances, they felt targeted despite not being a part of the unrest. One individual interviewed encountered an elderly woman who was in the neighborhood to visit her niece. That woman had been shot in the face with a rubber bullet, sustaining an injury as a result.
Another witnessed police deploying CS gas near children picnicking in Malcolm X Park and near elders merely standing outside of their homes. This individual also witnessed police shoot tear gas toward other residents congregating outside their homes on Chestnut and Walnut Streets, including disabled individuals in wheelchairs who were unable to easily escape the gas’ effects. And, she witnessed how a family having a birthday party on their porch on Chestnut Street also felt the effects of the CS gas that SWAT deployed.
Just Who’s In Charge Here? (I’ll pause while you throw back that shot.)
Controller Rhynhart’s report, and the aftermath
Rhynhart’s report goes on to feed your buzz, page by page. How is it that, given that violent protests had already been seen fanning across the country, police brass didn’t even rescind their rank and file’s days off, or even meet to plan a response until the day before the May 30 protests?
How is it that the head of the Office of Emergency Management position, which had been a stand-alone slot, had been folded into the job of Fire Commissioner? And how is it that said Fire Commissioner deferred decision-making to police (more buck-passing), and was out of town on vacation when the violence and looting erupted?
This is a time of crisis, and cities in crisis need mayors who make their citizens feel like someone is on the case. Do you get a sense that Jim Kenney wakes up every morning, rubs his hands together, and wonders to himself, How can I make my city better today?
How is it that the position of Inspector of Homeland Security, which had been integral to handling public unrest, was vacant? How is that the then-managing director and, until a later flip-flop, the police commissioner would both maintain that, according to the report, “the City could not have prepared for the level of civil unrest that occurred”?
According to the report, Kenney didn’t grant an interview to Rhynhart’s investigators, opting for the appearance of cooperation by insisting on questions in advance and followups in writing. Now that her report has been released, the Mayor’s response is in keeping with his past reaction to criticism.
The Mayor’s spokesman accused Rhynhart, a likely mayoral candidate in 2023, of playing politics, and said, “We reject [Rhynhart’s] unsubstantiated claims that the Mayor and members of his administration did not exercise leadership.”
The administration pointed to its own after-action review released in December, conducted by the Montgomery McCracken law firm and CNA, a consultancy with experience in assessing policing.
But that report pales in comparison to Rhynhart’s. Oh, there are some disturbing findings, yes, but the tone is far more forgiving. The decision to use tear gas, for example, is “questionable,” and there’s much throat-clearing offered to, if not excuse, then certainly sympathetically explain the administration’s shortcomings:
“It is important to understand that this series of events occurred while the city had been working tirelessly to manage the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic—the most challenging public health emergency in over 100 years. At the time of the protests, many city departments and personnel were already struggling to meet their day-to-day operational demands due to staffing shortages,” the report states, before going on to point out just how hard it is to effectively monitor social media nowadays:
In today’s technology-driven world, social media has become a powerful tool, allowing messaging across vast communication networks providing the means to quickly and methodically mobilize large numbers of individuals.
Protest organizers for the events in Philadelphia targeted audiences with information about the time and location of demonstrations using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms to quickly attract and position thousands of protestors at multiple locations—across multiple days.
This ability to quickly mobilize thousands of demonstrators in Philadelphia, and the deliberate decentralization of events by event organizers led to the intended manpower shortages and deployment challenges over the first few days of the protests.
Guess they don’t have social media in all those other cities that didn’t tear gas their citizens. But I digress from our drowning-of-sorrows drinkfest.
The vaccination rollout blunder
If Rhynhart’s report is not quite enough to get you sufficiently sloshed, let’s consider the week’s other example of asleep-at-the-switch leadership: Just why was the rollout of the city’s vaccination program effectively outsourced to a 22-year-old recent Drexel graduate and his buddies?
If that sounds like hyperbole, it’s not. The city cut its ties to Philly Fighting COVID, the group founded by 22-year-old Andrei Doroshin to run the city’s first mass vaccination clinic, after reporting raised questions about its data privacy policies and its sudden shift to for-profit status.
Dr. Ala Stanford, who founded the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and has been administering Covid tests for months, was aghast that the city’s Health Department reached an accommodation with Doroshin’s group before hers. She told Philly Mag that the Health Department suggested she partner with Philly Fighting COVID on administering vaccines.
“We’ve been giving flu vaccine since October and doing Covid testing in the hardest-hit communities and I happen to have been a doctor for 23 years, longer than some of these kids have been living, but I need these white kids to teach me how to do it?” Dr. Stanford said.
In the Inquirer, Lauren Vidas, a veteran of the Nutter administration and a former Council candidate, succinctly explained the gross negligence at play here.
“The city’s failure in ceding its leadership role around vaccination coordination to a phalanx of independent organizations was an egregious breach of its most important duty: protecting public health,” she writes. “The Health Department should have been the ‘tip of the spear’ in coordinating the vaccination effort. By failing to initially lead in this area, the city created a vacuum amid a crisis…This lack of leadership from the city forced people to rely on a highly questionable partner and may have exposed issues related to the use and disclosure of private health information.”
I happen to know that Vidas is also a bartender, so perhaps she’ll join us in another shot. Just Who’s in Charge Here?
Kenney can at least do one thing right away …
Both Rhynhart’s report and the strange saga of the Kenney administration’s love affair with Philly Fighting COVID speaks to a larger indictment that, if we keep playing, could lead to alcohol poisoning.
I’ve heard of no-show jobs in government, but this is ridiculous; we’ve got a mayor who simply is not on the job. That’s why some on City Council jokingly refer to Health Commissioner Thomas Farley as “Mayor Farley,” and that’s what Kenney’s daily public schedule shows: an absentee mayor. Monday through Thursday of this week, the mayor’s public schedule included just one event: Tuesday’s Covid-19 press conference.
Contrast that to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who consistently has two public events on his schedule most days, including participating in a panel discussion with Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley and Youngstown, Ohio, Mayor Tito Brown on their Marshall Plan for Middle America, and interviews with outlets like Newsweek and PBS NewsHour.
That’s what makes the reports of Kenney’s flirtation with a U.S. Senate bid so offensive. This is a time of crisis, and cities in crisis need mayors who make their citizens feel like someone is on the case. Do you get a sense that Jim Kenney wakes up every morning, rubs his hands together, and wonders to himself, How can I make my city better today?
Here at The Citizen, we try and offer constructive solutions. In fact, Rhynhart’s report is full of smart reforms. Maybe it’s due to all the shots, but I’m feeling right now that the answer to what ails us ain’t policy. It’s competency. It’s implementation. And it’s showing up to do the job.
Maybe asking an administration to suddenly become competent in the midst of a crisis is too much to ask. But Jim Kenney can at least do one right thing right away. He should put a definitive stop today to the talk about running for Senate, and he should roll up his sleeves and demonstrate to all of us that he’s on the case. Otherwise, if he’s already checked out and mentally on to his next gig, he should just end this interminable lame duck term and resign.
RELATED VIDEO CONTENTHeader photo by Samantha Madera / City of Philadelphia