Philly PD—and all public employees in Pa.—need transparency and accountability

Philadelphia City Council recently approved an accountability measure for police union contract negotiations, prompting praise from good government officials and a lawsuit from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 (FOP 5).

Underlying the reform: an implicit need for transparency to foster accountability and responsible spending across all levels of government.

The ordinance will require public hearings on the city’s proposed contracts before they are presented to the police union. Going forward, residents will be able to comment upon the cost of, and policies governing, their police force.

The collective bargaining process for police contracts, however, remains untouched. Police unions—like unions representing state workers and teachers—negotiate contracts over salaries, benefits, workplace conditions, and even disciplinary measures. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy. Union officials negotiate over million-dollar expenditures behind closed doors with public officials that are recipients of union political money.

The opaque process enshrines bad policies, such as arbitration procedures that contribute to the continued reinstatement of officers demonstrating misconduct—frustrating police commissioners and reformers alike. For instance, a Philadelphia police officer assaulted an unarmed woman and was fired on the grounds he falsified his use-of-force report and used excessive force, but a third-party arbitrator reinstated him and ordered his records purged in direct contradiction of the police commissioner's attempted discipline. 

While the city must report to council how they incorporated the public’s comments, they are not required to revise the contract—nor is public access to the final contract and negotiating process allowed. Yet this reform is a strong step in the right direction. As bill sponsor Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson summarizes:

“This legislation seeks to mandate public transparency and accountability in a process that has been shrouded in secrecy for too long…We can no longer afford to have these important discussions happen behind closed doors.”

The FOP 5 will likely resist the procedural reform, as they have previously opposed an independent commission to investigate police shootings and efforts to reform police discipline. They allege that the ordinance discriminates against police because it does not hold any other Philadelphia’s public employees to the same standard. And they’re correct—every public employee should be subject to the same transparency and accountability.

As City Controller and fiscal watchdog Rebecca Rhynhart states, “Transparency is always important to rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse. The more transparent and the more input that people have, the less fraud and abuse there is.” 

It’s high time that every public employee across Pennsylvania face scrutiny from the taxpayers they serve. Public union transparency measures that have been proposed in the state legislature can ensure accountability.

  • House Bill 2852 (Reps. Russ Diamond, Jim Cox, and Paul Schemel) requires a contract proposal public comment period across Pennsylvania police departments, while also opening evidentiary hearings to the public and subjecting all documents and evidence to the Right-to-Know Law. It also curbs arbitration and provides police commissioners with more power over discipline.
  • Senate Bill 449 (Sen. Scott Martin) removes negotiation records’ current exemption from the Right-to-Know-Law, giving public access to negotiation and contract documentation for all government unions.
  • Pennsylvania Senate Bill 339 and House Bill 250 (Sen. Pat Stefano and Rep. Matt Gabler) require public posting of all government union contracts before they go into effect, a regular practice in at least 14 other states.

Responsible government at all levels requires transparency, and elected officials should continue down this path of reform. It’s not just police who should answer to the public—everyone whose salary comes from taxpayers’ money must be held accountable.