UPDATED: June 9, 8 a.m.
The letter starts dramatically with the declaration "Philadelphia can’t breathe," recalling the last words of George Floyd, the black man killed in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day, and the protests that followed. The letter goes on to explain that members cannot agree to a $14 million police budget increase while cutting spending on health care, housing, social services, youth programs, libraries, parks and recreation, and the arts.
"The police department — along with the policing profession nationally — faces a crisis of legitimacy. A big part of the problem is that we too often ask the police to solve problems better addressed by social workers, health care providers, educators, housing counselors, and others," councilmembers wrote.
They also propose a dozen policy changes to improve police accountability.
The letter from City Council came after prosecutors, defenders and court officials testified about what Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner described as a “tsunami” of cases awaiting the full reopening of courts.
“We not only have an unprecedented three months or so of cases that have been delayed, but we have all of the arrests that have occurred during this period, and it is truly a daunting issue,” Krasner said.
Krasner urged council to restore an $8 million cut to his office or, he warned, the city could wipe out the progress it’s made in decreasing the prison population, as defendants spend months in jail awaiting trial.
A spokesman for the Kenney administration said the mayor is reviewing the letter and giving City Council's suggestions "serious consideration."
A nationwide call
Advocates for reform in cities across the country are calling on governments to “defund the police.” They say police departments account for huge chunks of city budgets, and some of that money could be more effectively invested elsewhere to reduce crime and improve communities.
He said calls to defund are not new, but this may be the right time for meaningful change.
"Right now, it’s been really a catalytic moment for us to really take that call to action and really turn it into tangible policy recommendations," he added.
When asked if he supports the calls for defunding, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday, live on KYW Newsradio, that it's not as simple as a binary "yes" or "no."
He used the city of Camden, just across the river, as an example. The Camden Police Department was dissolved in 2013 and replaced with a county police force, which made strides in community relations. It focused on connecting with the community and de-escalation. Officials there say it made a world of difference, and violent crime is down.
"It’s that investment in community policing and relations that I think has made a difference so far, and we need more of that. We need to be walking in each other’s shoes, not just in words in a protest, but in our actions," Murphy said.
“Look at what you saw in Camden with the police chief marching. That set an extraordinary tone."
Of course, there are those who aren’t happy about the idea of dollars being diverted. "Doesn’t make sense," Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby said. "You’re taking away from your community. You’re taking resources out of your community."
With Philadelphia's homicide rate rising, he said, reducing those resources would be a recipe for disaster.