Philadelphia Police Department

The Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at Seventh and Race streets. —WHYY file photo

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw addressed concerns about the department's new, temporary policy of delaying arrests for some nonviolent offenses Wednesday, saying she does not want the department's decisions to "lend to the fear and and alarm and the panic that we have already seen take place here."

Officers will continue to do their jobs, she said.

"But quite frankly, we had to adjust what we were doing and to what is happening in other places in the criminal justice system," she said during a news conference outside police department headquarters Wednesday morning. "Right now, quite frankly, this is triage."

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The policy has the support of the Kenney administration, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 and the Guardian Civic League.

"Rest assured, this is not decriminalization," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said on Twitter. "It's about protecting officers, residents, & criminal justice system by allowing flexibility for arresting officers."

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the police still will hold accountable people who break the law.

"But what I also need is to make sure that I have as many officers as possible to respond to violent crime," he said during a news conference in City Hall.

Abernathy said the changes are "not an “invitation for lawlessness" and arrests will still be conducted based on probable cause, including whether an individual is judged to be an immediate threat to public safety.

Abernathy added that similar arrest protocols were standard across the state and Philadelphia has been an outlier in taking people into custody for low-level crimes.

“We are supportive of Commissioner Outlaw’s directive on making arrests during the coronavirus crisis,” FOP President John McNesby said in a written statement. “The directive was released to keep officers safe during this public crisis. Meanwhile, violent offenders will be arrested and prosecuted with the guidance of a police supervisor."

Outlaw said the new policy is one of many steps department leaders have taken to attempt to ensure the safety of officers.

She said the more than 6,500-member department implemented social-distancing precautions at roll call to reduce contact between officers and canceled non-essential trainings.

A significant issue for the department, in terms of social distancing, will be dealing with officers who regularly ride in patrol cars together, Outlaw said. New social distancing measures will require officers now to ride in single cars when that is possible.

“These are all things we have to consider and some of these things are possible and some of them aren’t,” Outlaw said. “Now we are looking at logistics. Do we have enough cars to be able to do that? We don’t have the answer to that right away. But we are in communication every day and if we come across something that does not work, we will go back to the drawing board and try something new.”

Officers also have been instructed to wash their hands regularly, wear nitrile gloves, and refrain from touching their faces.

Officers have not been directed to wear face masks.

Outlaw was joined on Wednesday by other law enforcement leaders who stood behind her, including District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Earlier this week, Krasner called for a reduction in arrests over low-level, non-violent crimes. On Tuesday, the police department responded with its own enhanced response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, police said a person who would normally be arrested for certain non-violent crimes and processed at a detective division will now be detained for the purpose of confirming identity, as well as completion of required paperwork, released and arrested at a later date pursuant to an arrest warrent.

“Again, it’s non-violent crimes; property crimes,” Outlaw said. “Does someone breaking into a shed require being taken to the detective’s division and prosecuted and taken into physical custody? The answer might be no. The answer could be yes. But to be clear, the Philadelphia Police Department is not turning a blind eye to crime. Those that commit certain non-violent offenses will be arrested at the scene.”

Also on Wednesday, Outlaw announced the promotion of Chief Inspector Melvin Singleton to deputy commissioner overseeing patrol operations, a position that had been vacant since last month.

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