Since May, the Philadelphia Police Department’s budget has been a matter of contention. As protests for racial equality and against police brutality swept the streets of Philadelphia, often targeting the police department. Protestors largely called to defund the PPD, pressuring City Council to take action. In June, the city decided to cancel the $19 million increase to the police budget that was planned, and diverted another $14 million dollars that were part of the original budget toward “other resources.”
While it seemed like “other resources” would mean the community programs that many protestors were seeking, the phrasing was mostly a front to pay employees who were doing the same role but in a different office, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Essentially, the action of diverting funds was a farce to appease those who called to defund the police.
Since June, other events have exacerbated tensions among protestors, most significantly the death of Walter Wallace Jr. at the hands of the PPD . Wallace, a 27-year-old Black male who had a knife, was shot multiple times by police officers on Oct. 26. Of the millions of protestors who took to the streets as an outcry, the biggest takeaway was about peaceful de-escalation. Why didn’t the police use non-lethal tactics to disarm Wallace? His case was one of mental health, so why were none of the first responders equipped to deal with his condition and instead jumped to violence?
As a response to the national protests, the PPD is now requesting $14 million from the City Council to fund an initiative that will equip every working police officer with a taser or stun gun, each costing around $1,200. The police department must purchase over 1,500 tasers in the next year to meet the demand for nearly 4,500, according to Billy Penn.
While the department is asking for an increase in budget for the tasers, their request extends to $17.7 million to help cover annual costs. According to the budget documents reviewed by Billy Penn, these additional costs are “attributed to higher than planned costs for civil unrest and new union contracts which includes raises and a bonus starting.”Put simply, the additional $18 million is going toward police overtime, a 2.5 percent pay raise, and bonuses for the officers.
Although additional spending toward equipping officers with tasers seems like a step in the right direction, we don’t believe it truly is. Tasers are still very much lethal weapons, albeit less-lethal than guns, and do not solve the existing overarching issues. The problems at hand are the disproportionate targeting of Black people, use of excessive force and lack of methods for dealing with mentally-ill citizens. Granting PPD officers tasers via this requested funding increase will not remedy these issues.
Existing funds should be better utilized to develop training for mental health cases, for instance. New York City recently adopted a new program in which mental health and crisis workers will respond to emergency mental health calls instead of law enforcement. Such a program is also feasible in Philadelphia — but certainly not without a large effort. The Office of Violence Prevention is currently responsible for any response, similar to that of New York City’s pilot program.
However, simply increasing the program’s budget will not solve any problems, according to councilmember Jamie Gauthier. About the Office of Violence Prevention, Gauthier said, “I can’t say for sure if we invested $20 million in them that they would be ready to take $20 million and do what we need them to do.” Philadelphia’s mental health response system has major changes to make before it can be considered a viable option, which is why the public ought to remain vigilant about what is happening behind the numbers at face value.