The Police were formally founded in the mid-19th century in response to migration and poverty, and to protect capital interests from “pauperism.” Without any evidence that policing actually keeps our communities safe, the city has spent the past century and a half pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into policing and has repeatedly divested from the basic resources our communities need.
In a city without the resources we deserve, policing has become a single point of contact for a wide range of issues that police are not suited to address: poverty, poor quality education, houselessness, mental health, and substance abuse, to name a few. The only thing our communities can count on from public dollars is a fully outfitted force of violence and punishment. To truly become safe, our communities need and deserve so much more.
The Philadelphia Police Department has a clear legacy of corruption, resistance to oversight and reform, and racial oppression. From the indictment of 52 officers and the mayor in 1937, to 80 instances of illegal interrogation methods in 1977, to 72 officers being benched for bigoted social media posts in 2019, corruption has permeated the department from its very origins. Scholar Chenjerai Kumanyika even stated that there “hasn’t been a 10-year period where [the Philadelphia Police Department] has not had some major scandal since it was founded.”
Philadelphia is now on its third attempt to create a police oversight body, as the previous two were gutted by the police or never had real power. And newly proposed reforms such as bias training, body-worn cameras, and universal tasers have been attempted in the past to little effect: they have not curtailed police power, nor have they prevented police from killing Philadelphians.
The Philadelphia police also have a history of fomenting racial violence. The police joined with white mobs and attacked Black protesters during numerous racial upheavals from 1838 through 2020. Police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo infamously used extreme tactics against Black protestors, and the MOVE bombing is one of the most egregious uses of police force against civilians in US history. Black Philadelphians are still disproportionately arrested and killed by police, and their killers are rarely brought to justice.
Despite these deep-rooted and enduring problems with the police, they have consistently received budget increases, even as social services like libraries and schools have seen major cuts and closures. The police budget has increased almost $100 million over the past decade and now houses almost 7500 employees. By contrast, the Office of Violence Prevention, tasked with keeping harm from happening in the first place, has only 13 employees for FY2021.
Regardless of the ever-increasing police force and the size of its budget, it has not prevented violence in our city or made us safer. Between FY2006 and FY2020, the homicide count only changed from 387 to 368, but the department’s budget increased by almost $150 million. The clearance rate for homicides during the pandemic has only been 45%, and the number of dismissed cases has increased from 18% in 2015 to 47% in 2020.
Focusing solely on policing and its relationship to violence fails to take into account the key role that divestment from essential resources and services has played in making our communities less safe and whole. Neighborhoods made up primarily of Black and brown, working class residents have faced both public cuts from the city and private divestment for generations.
Philly is still feeling the long-term effects of historic redlining, and communities of color now face the double-barreled issues of gentrification and discriminatory loan practices. This means lower rates of Black and brown home ownership and intergenerational wealth accrual, as well as higher rates of eviction for renters. Black residents have been pushed into areas deemed “unworthy of investment” by the federal government, and even now struggle to get city funding for basic amenities like parks.
Public services have suffered from massive divestment as well. Libraries, a key community service that offers a safe space and free resources to all, have been on the front lines of cuts both during the pandemic and in prior years. Houselessness is an enduring but not insurmountable problem in Philly: Liz Hersh of the Office of Supportive Housing stated, “With an additional $31 million a year, we could end chronic street homelessness.” That $31 million is a mere 4% of the police budget. Meanwhile, organizers had to fight hard to keep the police from getting a $19 million increase for FY21, most of which they received in the fall budget transfer.
Philly spends thousands less per student on schooling than surrounding counties; for decades, Philly students have not gotten the level of investment in their education they deserve. Our students have suffered through years of massive school closures and toxic levels of lead and asbestos, and many are now struggling to get affordable internet access during online learning. Other essential services that invest directly in our communities, such as adult education and workforce development, have all suffered while the police budget almost never falters.
The city’s precious resources have been drawn away from key services that our communities need and funneled towards an ineffective, corrupt, and often racist police department that doesn’t keep us safe. It is past time to reimagine our budget to match our communities’ priorities.
 Note: This number is based on the Operating Budget, General Fund Obligations from FY 2010-FY2021- Years FY20-21 are based on estimated obligations and the approved budget. Adjusted for inflation.
06. Note: This number is based on the Operating Budget, General Fund Obligations from FY 2010-FY2021- Years FY20-21 are based on estimated obligations and the approved budget. Adjusted for inflation.
08. https://www.phila.gov/finance/pdfs/budget_FY06.pdf (p. 113)
09. https://www.phila.gov/ (p. 160)