It’s still early in his administration, but some of Mayor Kenney’s tendencies suggest an inclination to take the politically expedient path in addressing issues that are begging for more innovative solutions. The latest example of that is his signing off on Police Commissioner Richard Ross’ request to ditch college credit requirements for police recruits.
It was disturbing enough that Ross would suggest ending a good policy that his predecessor, former Commissioner Charles Ramsey, originated to make the Police Department more professional. After all, Ross, who grew up as a cop on the city force, assured Philadelphians that he wouldn’t undermine reforms made by Ramsey, an outsider who who was a deputy police chief in Chicago and the chief in Washington before coming here.
The department that Ramsey took over in 2008 needed a kick in the butt that could only come from someone who had not developed relationships over the years that might make him hesitate to take action. Ramsey had no tolerance for bad cops accused of corruption and he invited the Department of Justice to investigate why Philadelphia officers were shooting so many people.
The DOJ’s report in 2013 included 91 recommendations on the use of force by police, almost all of which Ramsey implemented. But he understood that an underlying problem was the caliber of officer being put on city streets. He instituted the requirement that recruits have at least 60 hours of college credit to put officers on the force who can act both decisively and intelligently in critical situations.
Book learning is no replacement for experience, but studies have shown that officers who went to college demonstrate better overall job performance, show greater levels of creativity, have better problem-solving skills, fewer disciplinary actions and citizen complaints, use less sick time, and are less likely to use force as their first option.
Ross has a very good reason for wanting to scuttle the college requirement. He’s about 400 officers short of the 6,525 budgeted for the force, and believes the requirement prevents too many otherwise qualified applicants with only a high school diploma or a GED from becoming cops. Nearly half of Philadelphia students don’t even finish high school.
But dropping the college requirement was the easy solution. A better one would have been to allow qualified recruits with only a high school diploma to accumulate the needed credits over time after they finish the Police Academy. It would be worth it for the city to supplement their college costs to get better educated officers who grew up in the very neighborhoods they would patrol.
Kenney said police recruits can’t afford “to go into debt for $100,000” to go to college. But it would cost only about $10,000 to get 60 credits at the Community College of Philadelphia. Ramsey wanted to form a partnership with CCP, which has a criminal justice program. Think how proud officers would be to earn an associate degree from CCP, which is possible with 60 credits.
But in Philadelphia’s frequently convoluted way of governing, the college requirement appears to be dead. The Civil Service Commission approved the change on April 20, and it was ratified last week by the Administrative Board, which includes Kenney, Finance Director Rob Dubow, and Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis. Without an appeal within 30 days, the requirement will disappear.
The thinking leading to that result seems similar to the mayor’s thought process in pushing a tax on sugary drinks to pay for more highly qualified pre-kindergarten programs throughout the city. That is a noble and needed goal for a city with too many children dropping out of school. But taxing a product whose consumption is expected to decline with the imposition of the tax doesn’t make sense if you want to fund good pre-Ks well into the future.
It would be better to fund preschool with property tax revenue, which if Philadelphia shows how much it cares about its children will only increase as more people want to live here. City officials say a 7.75 percent increase would annually raise about the same $95 million portion of the soda tax for pre-Ks and add only about $140 a year to the tax bill of the owners of a $130,000 house.
Of course, it’s harder to sell a property tax increase to the public than a soda tax hike. But wasn’t Kenney elected because he said he’s ready to do the hard work it takes to make Philadelphia a better city?
Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of the Inquirer.