Philadelphia protesters, with signs, t-shirts and chants, continue to decry what they define as widespread police brutality against black and brown people, and repeatedly highlight three specific examples: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. An inspired Mayor Kenney announced the formation of a steering committee to look at “public safety, criminal justice reform” and “underlying factors” of “structural violence” such as “persuasive poverty.” Kenney pledged: “This marks the beginning of a path toward real change in Philadelphia, and hopefully across America.” The mayor’s broad goals suffer from the same vagueness as the chants and slogans — and the vaguer a goal, the more difficult to accomplish, because without specific benchmarks, success remains elusive.
Beyond the platitudes, an examination into the individual cases may yield opportunities to understand specific problems and therefore develop concrete reforms.
Breonna Taylor, a black woman, died on March 13, 2020, shot by Louisville, Kentucky police serving a warrant upon her home. In Ms. Taylor’s memory, marchers chant, “Say her name.” Her image adorns T-Shirts, posters and social media accounts. Police murdered her, the demonstrators claim, because she was black.
Blaming Taylor’s death solely on her race shuts down any critical thinking about the circumstances of her death. A deeper dive into more than the skin color of the participants reveals that police shot Taylor during the execution of a so-called “no knock” search warrant on her home during the course of a narcotics investigation. Police claim to have announced themselves, despite the “no-knock” warrant, but Taylor’s boyfriend says he did not hear them and fired at the police entering the apartment. The police returned fire and Taylor died at the scene, shot at least eight times. A tragedy — but based on the accounts, the police might not have even realized she was there, or what she looked like.
Blaming Taylor’s death solely on her race shuts down any critical thinking about the circumstances of her death. A deeper dive into more than the skin color of the participants reveals that police shot Taylor during the execution of a so-called “no knock” search warrant on her home during the course of a narcotics investigation.
American and English jurisprudence have long required that police knock and announce their presence while executing a search warrant. However, as that kind of advance notice can tip off criminals to hide or destroy valuable evidence, thus hindering the odds of a successful prosecution, the federal government (as well as every state except Oregon and Florida) allows judges to authorize “no knock” warrants when law enforcement can convince them of the necessity to preserve evidence.
The use of these “no knock” warrants has swelled in the United States over the last forty years. In the early 1980s, judges signed about 3,000 “no knock” warrants per year. One criminologist estimated that 50,000 were issued in 2005. Others say the number is more in the 20,000 per year range. Everyone agrees they have become much more common.
Have the need for “no knock” warrants proliferated exponentially since the 1980s? Have law enforcement become too aggressive in seeking these warrants and the judiciary too permissive in granting them? With technology, are there better ways to detect and preserve evidence?
Mayor Kenney’s commission should study this issue, hearing from stakeholders who balance the competing interests of successfully thwarting criminal activity, especially the scourge of narcotics, with effective police policy to reduce the threat to human life. The Mayor has taken to kneeling to show his commitment to the cause. While those photo opportunities might be dramatic, reducing civilian injuries and fatalities during the execution of warrants requires actual, concrete policy reform.
In addition to kneeling, marching and making speeches, Kenney posts platitudes on social media. Many Philadelphians feel compelled to do the same, in the name of the cause. One of my neighbors posted a directory she developed of restaurants owned by black people, encouraging us to support the movement by buying their “yummy” food. Patronizing black owned businesses, both by buying their products and speaking about them with infantile adjectives, might satisfy woke liberals that they are doing their part. However, when considering the investigation into the death of Ahmaud Arbery, another deceased black man whose name and likeness litter signs, t-shirts, social media posts and even graffiti in support of the “Defund Police” movement, energy directed at an analysis between prosecutors and police might yield more profound results.
Mayor Kenney should show some backbone and stand up to this public sector union, vowing to remove dangerous actors as well as those that are ineffective or incompetent.
In Georgia, two white men followed and shot Arbery to death while a third man caught most, but not all, of the confrontation on cell phone video. No police were present at the scene, so this was a case of white civilians shooting a black man. After Arbery’s death, the local police and district attorney’s office fumbled the coordination of the investigation and as weeks passed, and tempers boiled, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation entered the fray, finally making arrests — thanks in large part to a social media firestorm that prompted law enforcement to act. Allowing racial tensions to fester unsettled the public’s faith in the investigation and the release of the video turned the case into an international news story. When the state needs to jump in because the locality could not get its act together, one wonders how the public can feel safe.
In his bid to quell racial unrest and bigotry in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney arranged for the overnight removal of the public statue of previous Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. However, decommissioning statues rather than studying and reforming how the police and the prosecutors interact, might not be the best path for the Mayor to reach his goals. Here in Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, a self- proclaimed reformer, routinely clashes with police. Krasner’s open contempt of law enforcement and perceived coddling of criminals fuels this bitter rivalry. Mayor Kenney should make the repair of this relationship a top priority, lest Philly become the sight of a similar melodrama as the public saw in the chaotic Arbery investigation.
People commit over 8 million criminal offenses each year in America and police work to arrest those accountable and promote public safety. However, no one denies that some police officers commit bad acts. George Floyd died a horrific death in Minneapolis – the terror he endured is palpable in the video. Mayor Kenney vows “a path toward real change” in Philadelphia as well as repeated pledges to hear and listen. Ambiguous adages like this look nice on the Mayor’s social media account, adorned with popular hashtags. Does that move the ball on public safety?
News reports indicate that the police officer who arrested and held down Mr. Floyd had previously been the subject of eighteen disciplinary complaints. Police, like many public sector employees, belong to unions that hold great power, serving as a bulwark against the removal of “bad apples.” Mayor Kenney should show some backbone and stand up to this public sector union, vowing to remove dangerous actors as well as those that are ineffective or incompetent. He should not stop there — municipal unions who go too far to protect government employees should be his next project. Let’s promote and reward excellence and root out ineptitude in all of Philadelphia government. Now that would be a real change.
So far, the chants, slogans, hashtags and platitudes continue apace. Let’s hope Mayor Kenney moves on to actionable, measurable reform.
Linda A. Kerns is an attorney and a co-founder of Broad + Liberty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. @lindakernslaw.
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