A big change is coming to Philadelphia. In November, voters will choose the city’s 100th mayor, as incumbent Jim Kenney (D) departs. On May 16, Democratic voters will select their candidate in a primary—and because of the city’s overwhelming Democratic lean, whoever wins will be heavily favored to win the general.
Philadelphia’s race will be closely watched for its impact on issues like policing and drugs.
There are nine Democratic candidates, and the first public poll showed four of them leading a clustered field: Cherelle Parker, a former state representative and City Council member (18 percent); Rebecca Rhynhart, the former elected city controller (17 percent); Helen Gym, the former at-large City Council member (15 percent); and Allan Domb, another former Council member (14 percent). The poll’s “credibility interval” of 3.8 percent means the differences in those candidates’ numbers aren’t significant.
Philadelphia’s overdose crisis has been building for many years. According to city data, 2021 saw a record 1,276 deaths—of which 82 percent involved opioids, most commonly fentanyl. An increasing proportion of deaths involve stimulants like cocaine and meth. Victims’ demographics have also been changing—with Black residents now suffering the highest overdose rates, as rates for non-Hispanic white residents decline.
“It’s been disappointing, the minimal role that addressing the overdose death crisis in Philly has played.”
Amid the crisis, Philadelphia has been the center of perhaps the most high-profile harm reduction battle in the United States—over the bid to open a safe consumption site (SCS, also known as overdose prevention sites) run by the nonprofit Safehouse. Since 2018, the proposal has been mired in a long-running legal battle with the Department of Justice under the Trump and Biden administrations.
Harm reduction has not figured prominently in the mayoral campaign, however.
“It’s been disappointing, the minimal role that addressing the overdose death crisis in Philly has played,” Brooke Feldman, a local harm reduction advocate and former organizer with Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network, told Filter. “The candidates have gotten away with really not having to answer to the harm reduction community in Philadelphia.”
“When it comes to harm reduction, the [only] hard question candidates are asked is, ‘Do you support Safehouse and overdose prevention sites?” she continued.
In Feldman’s view, the immense media attention—and negative coverage—given to Safehouse has silenced a vital conversation about how to increase support and funding for other harm reduction services locally—including sterile syringes, naloxone, fentanyl test strips, disease testing and treatment for substance use disorder.
As a Council member, Helen Gym opposed a bill that would have banned SCS in the city. And at a candidate debate on public health in April, as the Penn Capital Star reported, Gym said she supported harm reduction measures like Canada has introduced, but added that any SCS must have “buy-in” from the local community. Gym does not have a plan on her website that directly addresses drugs or harm reduction.
Cherelle Parker, meanwhile, opposes safe consumption sites.
During the same debate, Allan Domb said the city should use opioid lawsuit settlement money to build a “special services district” on Kensington Avenue for people who use drugs, and also said that he called former Governor Tom Wolf in January 2022 to lobby Mayor Kenney to declare the Kensington district a disaster area and access FEMA aid dollars. Later that year, the Council passed a nonbinding resolution declaring Kensington a disaster area. Domb’s mayoral platform includes declaring a public health emergency in Kensington.
Cherelle Parker, meanwhile, opposes SCS. In 2020, she dismissed concerns that harm reduction advocates could “guilt trip” people for not wanting the sites in their community. “But when you are a homeowner, what is going there will have an impact not just on your quality of life but on the value of what could be your only asset,” she said. “You have a right to speak.”
Rebecca Rhynhart, for her part, has released an opioid-crisis plan that includes increasing the police presence in the Kensington neighborhood, adopting Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion for “low-level offenders,” and “[breaking] up the open air drug market” by “[focusing] on dealers.” She also pledges to speed up intake of people who seek treatment for substance use disorder at city facilities. Her plan contains no mention of harm reduction.
Since the 2018 election of “progressive prosecutor” Larry Krasner (D) as Philadelphia district attorney, the city has also become central to nationwide debates on crime, prosecuting and policing. But the next mayor will play a huge role in setting policies in these areas.
On April 11, as NBC 10 reported, the Philadelphia Police Department requested $885 million for the 2024 budget year—an increase of nearly $56 million on the prior year. The department says this budget would fund a total of 6,380 uniformed officers, with the potential hiring of 850 new officers. It would expand the crime scene unit and invest in “community oriented and intelligence led policing.”
The police department’s budget is now $150 million higher than when Mayor Kenney took office in 2015.
The request is slightly larger than Mayor Kenney’s own budget proposal, which included new forensic police specialists and a laboratory, and continued funding over five years to “Operation Pinpoint,” to deploy more officers to high-incident areas. This police initiative was launched in 2019 as an effort to reduce shootings and homicides; police data show only limited impact on shootings, with no decrease in homicides.
The Philly police budget has increased throughout Kenney’s tenure. By June 2022, it was the highest of any city agency, taking up nearly 14 percent of the whole city budget. According to Crime and Justice News, the department’s budget is now $150 million higher than when Kenney took office in 2015.
The racial disparities of Philadelphia policing are stark. Black Philly residents are locked up at much higher rates than their white neighbors. Black and Latinx residents are also targeted by discretionary police stops, which has led in the past to a lawsuit and a federal consent decree filed against the city. And Black and Latinx drivers are targeted by pretextual traffic stops.
Instead of increasing police numbers, the city could be putting money into community violence intervention, which engages community members to work directly with people at risk of violence and address their needs. It’s proven to help prevent violence, and costs less than cops.
Rhynhart says she would also fully fund violence intervention programs.
Of the leading mayoral candidates, Gym’s plan would declare a state of emergency on guns and invest in forensics and faster 911 responses. She says she would redeploy officers to community foot patrols, but also increase non-police crisis responders. Her “youth anti-violence agenda” includes employment, after school programs and free transportation to school for all students.
Rhynhart’s plan would also declare a state of emergency on guns and seek to improve 911 response times. It would increase the number of officers on patrol, and target gun trafficking. But she says she would also fully fund violence intervention programs, review the effectiveness of Operation Pinpoint, and invest in job training for vulnerable neighborhoods.
Domb’s plan would “crack down” on gun violence, including arresting and prosecuting all gun offenses, even if the DA’s office does not pursue a case. He would expand foot patrols—and triple funding for police recruitment. He would declare a city-wide crime emergency and target retail theft and “repeat offenders.” He says he would additionally invest in violence intervention programs through communities and hospitals.
Finally, Cherelle Parker’s plan would hire 300 additional officers, seek to address “quality of life” issues, support victim and witness services, and invest more in “community engagement.”
Photograph by Simon via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.