When Philadelphians vote on Tuesday (tomorrow!), one of the ballot questions they’ll be asked to support, or not support, is a new city charter which would create a civilian enforcement arm to the Philadelphia Police Department, specifically for traffic and low-level issues, hopefully providing for safer streets and dealing with congestion in West Philly, Center City, and Manayunk (at least at first.)
On the surface, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia supports this legislation. And if it’s approved by voters, we want to make sure its implemented correctly, in a way that will actually make streets safer for everyone without singling out any demographic.
We believe civilian safety officers—who will be unarmed and work to keep traffic moving safely through the city—can work here, similar to how they’ve worked to reduce congestion and increase safety in cities like New York, Baltimore, and Seattle, where civilian enforcement officers have had a positive effect on safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists in the city.
We testified about this bill before it became a ballot question, and you can read our testimony here.
One thing of note about the ballot question is that it’s sort of vague. So, the implementation of such a program is going to be of monumental importance.
Among the duties of these new officers, according to a fact-sheet in City Council, would be to direct traffic at intersections, stop illegal parking, assist in enforcing traffic violations, blocked sidewalks, unpermitted work, and promoting pedestrian safety. Those are awesome goals, and desperately needed in Philadelphia.
There are good ways to do that, and bad ways to do that.
That’s why, as we noted in our testimony, the officers should take part in bicycling safety courses to better understand the roles cyclists and pedestrians play in overall traffic patterns, and ensure they’re taught the best methods to ensure all modes of traffic feel safe due to the officers.
We also noted, in our testimony, how important it is that Philadelphia does not repeat the mistakes of some other cities have made.
“During the implementation phase, we believe it’s important to ensure, among other things, there are checks on civilian enforcement officers as it pertains to racial bias,” we told Council in March. “There are examples throughout the country, in cities like Tampa, Chicago and across the river, in Camden, NJ, where civilian and police enforcement officers have issued a disproportionate number of tickets for minor offenses in African-American communities, which is something we need to make sure does not happen here.”
For example, ticketing a motorist for pulling over in the crosswalk or bike lane should be a ticketable offense, because it puts everyone on the street in danger. Ticketing a cyclist for the lack of a bell on their bike (which is specifically what was happening in Tampa and Camden), or handing out tickets for jaywalking on low-stress streets, should not be part of the officers’ parameters.
That said, we support this ballot question specifically because we’ve seen this work to increase safety in other cities. It’s been tested, and can work here when it’s correctly implemented.
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