The City of Philadelphia Must be Held Accountable for Police Violence

Philadelphia police use “non-lethal” weaponry during demonstrations against police violence in June 2020.

by Mary Catherine Roper

For three days last spring, Philadelphia police brutalized peaceful protesters following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The indiscriminate use of tear gas and “less-than-lethal” munitions like rubber bullets in a West Philadelphia residential neighborhood and the kettling and gassing of demonstrators on Interstate 676 became a national news story.

At the same time, Philadelphia police were permitting — even encouraging — white vigilantes to break the city’s curfew and roam the streets, often armed, to harass and threaten protesters. This disparity in treatment by police made international news.

In the immediate aftermath of the police violence, Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw defended the use of tear gas, claiming that protesters escalated the demonstration to the point where police had no choice but to gas demonstrators. Weeks later, after The New York Times published its exposé about the police brutality on I-676, both Kenney and Outlaw publicly apologized for the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters.

But, apologies aren’t enough.

That’s why the ACLU of Pennsylvania teamed up with Drexel University’s Stern Community Lawyering Clinic at the Kline School of Law to send a letter of complaint to the United Nations regarding the police violence against peaceful protesters and asking for an investigation by the UN Human Rights Council into the actions of Philadelphia police over those three days.

Last week, the UN responded, calling on the United States government to address police violence and systemic racism, citing the violence in Philadelphia as an example.

The UN’s human rights experts called for the changing of laws that allow police to use lethal force whenever it is deemed “reasonable.”

They report continues:

The use of potentially lethal force is an extreme measure, which may be resorted to only when strictly necessary to protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat,” the experts said. “Likewise, less lethal weapons must be employed only subject to strict requirements of necessity and proportionality, in situations where less harmful measures would be ineffective.

In addition, the UN experts also:

  • Uplifted the fact that 12 cities and five states have enacted bills banning police use of tear gas and pepper spray during protests, while a number more have pending legislation.
  • Urged governments to stop the “militarisation” of policing, noting that “[s]tudies have shown that the use of military gear and armored vehicles for the purposes of law enforcement has not reduced crime or increased officers’ safety. On the contrary, when such equipment is used, officers are more likely to display violent behaviour.”
  • Pointed to the epidemic of over-policing, noting that approximately 80 percent of arrests in the United States are for misdemeanors, and that these encounters account for many police shootings and recommended that “non-serious offenses, including minor traffic violations, should be addressed through mechanisms outside the criminal legal system. Reducing unnecessary interactions between police and community members will reduce violence and deaths.”
  • Urged that “policing reforms must adopt genuine and substantive measures to dismantle systemic racism in policing, including against racial, ethnic and other minorities, by divestment from current policing budgets and reinvestment in alternative social and economic resources that are vital for the safety of these communities” and called for the communities most directly harmed by the existing institutions of policing to have meaningful opportunities to shape policing and related reforms.

The demands of the UN experts echo the demands that advocates and organizers have been shouting for: Philadelphia city officials need to make a clear commitment to divesting from the police and re-investing those resources in community programs and social services.

It’s not the only official report to come out in recent weeks condemning the city’s actions during the protests.

In late January, Philadelphia City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released a devastating report detailing the failure of leadership both in the Philadelphia Police Department and in City Hall in how they managed the protests over those initial three days of demonstrations. Those failures started with the lack of preparation for large scale protests, and included the apparently reflexive reaction by Commissioner Outlaw to respond to protests with tear gas and armored vehicles and the Mayor’s failure to stop that. As our letter of complaint made clear, those weapons were not directed at looters, but at peaceful protesters, bystanders and even residents.

As Controller Rhynart notes in her report: “Tear gas is banned in warfare and has not been used in Philadelphia for civil unrest since the MOVE crisis in 1985. Despite this, tear gas was deployed on our own people several times during the unrest. The negative and painful effects of teargas cannot be overstated, and it should not have been used the way it was.”

These events should not be a surprise given Commissioner Outlaw’s dismal record of dealing with protesters during her time as the chief of police in Portland, OR.

Our City leadership failed in its response to the protests in the spring of 2020. And it has failed for decades to address the racism and violence perpetrated by the Philadelphia Police. It is time for that to change.

The UN experts’ release offers a partial roadmap for that change; advocates through Philadelphia have made the same demands. We must all demand that city officials make a clear commitment to divesting from the police and re-investing those resources in community programs and social services.

Police “solutions” like anti-racism training and diversity in hiring haven’t solved anything — and have proven to be a waste of resources.

Violence is a feature, not a bug, of the police. The only way to stop police violence steeped in systemic racism is to divest from the police.

Mary Catherine Roper is the deputy legal director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.