Technology upgrades dominate Philadelphia police budget hearing

technology police budget
Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel speaks Tuesday, April 9, during City Council budget hearings.

The Philadelphia Police Department plans to lean into new technologies, including drones and a 911 texting service, top brass told lawmakers during a hearing Tuesday on Mayor Cherelle Parker’s first budget proposal.

Buoyed by the construction of a multimillion-dollar forensics lab, along with grant money, Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said the upgrades will help law enforcement solve and prevent crimes.

“We won’t get into the specific technology capabilities because of the sensitivity of it,” he added. “But if we get what we need from this budget… we will be on par with our federal partners.”

police budget
Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, second from right, speaks Tuesday, April 9, during City Council budget hearings.

Parker’s capital spending plan incorporates $45 million for the new lab. PPD leaders, Bethel told City Council, have narrowed the number of potential locations to two, and a decision is expected soon. Once site selection is complete, the facility should open in 18 to 20 months, he said.

Bethel said surveillance drones could be a “game-changer” for narcotics detectives monitoring drug corners. The devices, he testified, could also be used for patrol operations and to allow officers to better see what is happening at a particular scene.

The PPD plans to hire 15 dispatchers for a 911 texting pilot, and Bethel said there will be a trial run of technology allowing officers to connect through video link with the public related to calls that do not pose an immediate threat.

Grant funding allows police to mount 25 license-plate reading cameras on patrol vehicles, and Bethel said the department plans to install up to 200 stationary scanners in areas with high numbers of stolen cars.

To combat phony paper tags, a growing problem in the city, Bethel said his team sent out a guide Monday developed by the New York Police Department showing legitimate temporary plates from all 50 states and common fakes.

Parker, shortly after taking office, signed an executive order that declared “a public safety emergency” and instructed Bethel to develop a plan to address police recruitment, quality-of-life issues, the drug market in Kensington, and other areas. More details on that strategy are expected later this week.

However, Bethel, who was appointed by the new mayor in January, did shed some light on his approach during his multiple hours of City Hall testimony.

Officers are demoralized, he explained, by being told everything they cannot do, rather than what they can and should be doing on the job.

“Part of what we’re going to do is get back to policing and not use some of these excuses that we have,” Bethel added, “particularly as it relates to our low-level offenses and those instances that we’ve kind of just drove by and said we’re not going to address anymore.”

He does plan to deploy “surge teams” – composed of officers usually assigned to administrative duties – to aid law enforcement responding to hotspots and unanticipated events, such as protests and car meet-ups.

Members of social justice organizations rally outside City Hall Tuesday, April 9, ahead of budget hearings.

Members of several social justice organizations gathered outside City Hall prior to the hearing to oppose budget increases for the PPD and Philadelphia Department of Prisons.

“We know that we will never arrest our way to safety, so why are we proposing to continue to increase the budget of the police department when communities are struggling?” asked Rikeyah Lindsay, an organizer with Straight Ahead, which advocates for the abolition of the prison system.

The Abolitionist Law Center, another organization involved in the protest, distributed a statement from Crystal Rodriguez, mother to Alexander Spencer’s children. Spencer, 28, was killed by police following an altercation that left an officer shot Jan. 26 inside a Fairhill beer deli.

“When the mayor says that she is 1001% backing the police, when she says she wants more drones, when she says she wants to put $1 billion into police – this is what it is paying for,” Rodriguez said in the written statement after describing the impact of his death on her family.

Unlike 2020, when then Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed funding increase for the PPD drew scrutiny in street protests and in Council before it was eventually scrapped, there was very little discussion from lawmakers about the department’s growing budget.

In fact, Councilmember Jim Harrity asked whether the $877.5 million proposal for operating costs was enough for the PPD. After laughing about it being a trick question, Bethel said more than 95% of the department’s spending is allocated for personnel costs, leaving little to do anything beyond pay salaries.

Parker’s proposed police budget is 2.5% above what lawmakers approved for the current fiscal year but nearly $900,000 less than what the PPD is expecting to spend when the term ends in the summer.

Councilmembers touched on a wide array of other topics during the hearing, including student safety, 911 dispatch, officer retention and nuisance businesses.

The meeting was part of an ongoing series examining Parker’s spending plan. Her administration and Council must reach a budget agreement by July 1.

Residents have the opportunity to weigh in on the budget during special hearings scheduled for April 24 and May 1, with the latter dedicated to comment about city funding for the School District of Philadelphia.

In addition, Council President Kenyatta Johnson is hosting a budget town hall series. The first event is Wednesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at South Philadelphia High School, and subsequent town halls are set for the same time period April 15 at Martin Luther King High School; April 25 at the John F. Street Community Center; and April 29 at West Philadelphia High School.