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Reality Check: Will a New Police Chief Above Our Old Police Chief Change Anything?

City Councilmembers are celebrating the idea of a “Public Safety Director” to oversee violence reduction in Philly. But, WURD’s midday host wonders, what will that really solve?

Reality Check: Will a New Police Chief Above Our Old Police Chief Change Anything?

City Councilmembers are celebrating the idea of a “Public Safety Director” to oversee violence reduction in Philly. But, WURD’s midday host wonders, what will that really solve?

On paper, it reads like a spectacular concept for a Philadelphia City government that has long suffered from a reputation of resisting spectacular change. In theory, it sounds practical and a sorely needed massage of anti-crime oil to finally heal Philly’s seemingly unfixable crime wave woes.

City Council President Darrell Clarke’s proposed new “Public Safety Director” — appointed by the mayor but approved by City Council — would oversee Philly’s fire, police, emergency and prisons departments. The new position would be the first of its kind for Delaware Valley’s Gotham, a sign, as enthusiastic boosters pronounced, that our city’s notoriously lumbering bureaucracy can embrace something outside of the norm. As proposed, the Public Safety Director would coordinate and unify crime-fighting activities amongst all of Philly’s public safety-focused agencies.

Or, maybe, it was just the best big legacy thing Clarke could come up with to leave behind as a parting gift in the wake of his impending retirement.

Or, perhaps, the enthusiasm for the idea has to do with the low bar the City sets for itself. Because what seems shiny and new could end up being a waste of office and yet another disappointment for beleaguered residents to point to. Many questions are swirling around this latest Council idea, even as it passes on to the Committee stage and readies itself for ultimate passage onto the ballot and, potentially, approval from voters on May 16.

What seems shiny and new could end up being a waste of office and yet another disappointment for beleaguered residents to point to.

Councilmember Curtis Jones, 4th district, is quoted as saying that “What we discovered [after touring other cities in the region] is we have much of what they have, but what we need is the straw that stirs the drink to let it come together.” Whatever that means.

Cities referenced in the resolution as having Public Safety Director positions include Chicago, Newark and Columbus, OH. Clarke himself reportedly references Trenton as an example of collaborative perfection among public safety-oriented departments.

But what about this does the Council president and his colleagues view as game-changing? It seems to be just another police chief overseeing our current, beleaguered police chief. Is that really the way to innovatively tackle a crime crisis? Just hire a new police chief to layer on top of the one who’s perceived as failing?

One rightfully wonders once we get into a more thoughtful read of the fine print. The resolution initially claims it’s “… strategically reorienting the resources at our disposal … [for] an innovative approach to public safety.” Yet, within a few words, the push to spur “collaboration” is focused on “… our safety-oriented City agencies.” Which means that we’re not really being “innovative;” we’re increasing the risk of adding another red-taping approval process into a labyrinthine governmental structure called Philadelphia City government that thrives off being unnecessarily complex and outdated.

How that’s assured is by the Resolution’s insistence, in the Chapter 3 section on “Qualifications” that “the Chief Public Safety Director … be a law enforcement professional and shall have at least five years’ experience as the head of a municipal or state government law enforcement agency.

In other words: another police chief.

There are several problems here.

We’re not getting a sense of anything all that different from the normally failed policing in Philadelphia, which has witnessed record high homicide rates the last several years. There’s an emphasis in the proposal on public-safety agency collaboration, but there is no sense that lawmakers are pushing the envelope on what is a public-safety agency in a moment that requires expanding its scope.

There’s no real data showing how this approach truly and dramatically reduces violent crime, other than the talks they’ve had with other cities, most of which can point to proven methods of crime reduction that go beyond just more policing.

And as this Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative briefing asks: What does success look like? If it’s just a slight 25 percent here or there and convincing ourselves it can’t go any lower, why bother? Other studies, such as this Stanford Social Innovation Review brief, warn that the multi-agency approach works “… only if they can bring sources of misalignment to the surface, discuss them, and work through them.”

Is the Council considering that? Will a new mayor do that, too?

And what does another police chief (lite) give us that the current police commissioner already lacks? Do we get a promise that it won’t be the same stale and ineffective model of policing that we’re already getting?

We need commitments that aren’t just a classic roll-up of traditional public safety agencies into one that gives more weight to police simply because the Public Safety Director, a law enforcement person, can’t see beyond that lens. Even as Philly has watched a 46 percent increase in homicides since 2018, we’ve seen a massive parallel 22 percent increase in the Philadelphia police budget over the same time period — with every year of increased police budget being met with a corresponding rise in violent crime.

We keep making robust — and now nearly $1 billion — investments in a police budget that is not giving us any high return.

Where is the plan to launch other evidence-based strategies, including “place-based fixes” that have shown dramatic reductions in violent crime over time — things like complete trash clean-up to increased tree planting to vacant lot remediation to fixing homes to completely funding and expanding libraries in impacted neighborhoods?

Where is the plan to enact a version of focussed deterrence or some other police, social services and neighborhood collaboration that helps people at risk of committing or being victims of violence, while also promising to prosecute those who refuse assistance?

Police really should be playing a support and enforcement role to crime-fighting strategies that work. And honestly: These “place-based” models are what we already see as the quality-of-life standard in communities that don’t experience high violence and collapse.

There’s no clear indication this new Public Safety Director would prioritize those strategies. If we have another law enforcement professional heading up public safety activities in Philadelphia, won’t that just tilt decision-making in favor of the police department and their budget?

Even Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, which offers one of the leading Masters-level degree programs training future public safety directors, explains that public safety directors must be multi-faceted and “apply a range of strategies, including law enforcement, to ensure public safety.” Policing is not identified as the top skill set in that description. It’s not clear if the Public Safety Director idea recommended by Council will bring that essential multi-disciplinary approach.

We keep making robust — and now nearly $1 billion — investments in a police budget that is not giving us any high return. We keep making investments in new offices and new government bureaucracy, yet we don’t have conclusive evidence that we’ll get a big ROI from that either. We finance everything but the strategies of direct quality-of-life investments in communities that are long proven to work and show direct results … yet, Council doesn’t mention these place-based or other data-rich strategies when applauding Clarke’s proposal.

Philadelphia has more than enough resources and talent to make those strategies work — and they don’t require the hiring of a six-figure salaried Public Safety Director to put them in play right now.

Charles Ellison is executive producer and host of “Reality Check” on WURD and managing editor of ecoWURD. He is also a 2023 Emerson Collective Fellow. He can be reached via Twitter @ellisonreport.


Photo by Jared Piper / PHL Council

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