Abernathy protest

Sixteen organizations signed a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney and protested in the snow against the appointment of Brian Abernathy to managing director based on his recorded history with marginalized groups. | Image: Andrea Cantor

Sixteen community organizations have signed a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney denouncing his choice of Brian Abernathy as managing director of Philadelphia.

The letter states: “Brian Abernathy is the wrong choice for such a powerful position. Through his actions on immigration, police accountability, and gentrification, he has proven he does not share our values and had no place in city administration. Brian Abernathy should be fired.”

Abernathy has held the position of executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (2013-2015) and first deputy managing director (2016 until present). He is set to assume his new role as managing director in January 2019.

Abernathy opponents protested in the snow by the Octavius Catto Statue City Hall on Dec. 5. Raising their objections, the various groups argued eight overarching points: restructuring of PRA and the Philadelphia Land Bank, use of eminent domain, collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stop-and-frisk, a costly body camera contract, police accountability, block party oversight and safe injection sites.

“I think it’s really important in our communities for folks of color and immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, to feel safe,” said Gwen Snyder, an AbolishICEPHL activist who also helped organize the #BeliveSurvivors Philly walkout against Brett Kavanaugh’s supreme court justice appointment in September. “They are our neighbors and Brian Abernathy has consistently worked to undermine our neighbor’s sense of safety.”

The activist groups against Abernathy’s appointment include: AbolishICEPHL, Americans for Democratic Action, Asian Americans United, Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, Free Migration Project, Green Party of Philadelphia, Human Rights Coalition, LaSalle YDSA, Philly Democratic Socialists of America, Pennsylvania Federation BMWEB/IBT, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), Philadelphia Tenants Union, Shut Down Berks Coalition, Socialist Alternative Philadelphia and Stadium Stompers.

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Brian Abernathy is schedule to take office as the new managing director of Philadelphia in January 2019. | Image courtesy: South Philly Review

“We absolutely respect the right of this group to make their demands, and a representative of the Mayor received their letter this afternoon,” Deputy Communications Director of the City of Philadelphia Mike Dunn told Philadelphia Weekly on Dec. 5.“ I can say that many of the issues raised by the group regarding Brian Abernathy’s tenure are overstated or, in some cases, factually wrong.”

In a followed up, PW asked what specifically had been “overstated” or “factually wrong.” Dunn emailed a counterpoint to each of the opposition’s arguments. In an effort to create a balanced narrative, here are the pros and cons for Abernathy’s appointment directly from the opposition’s letter and from Dunn on behalf of the City of Philadelphia.

1. Restructuring of PRA & the Philadelphia Land Bank

What the opposition says:

While Executive Director of the PRA, Abernathy helped create the Philadelphia Land Bank. The PLB streamlines the process of selling publicly owned land and abandoned houses, and greatly reduces community oversight in the process. As Executive Director of PRA, Abernathy created standards for private companies to purchase PRA land; monetary amount offered, economic inclusion, and social impact. However, these standards are not clearly defined, and there is little community oversight or input on the projects of the PRA.

What the City says:

When Brian took over as Executive Director of the PRA, the organization was running a multi-million dollar deficit, lacked clear direction and had significant morale issues.  When he took control, he presented the first complete budget – a balanced one – to the Board of Directors. To do that, he restructured the organization and focused on specific projects.  Working with the City, he reinvigorated the Trades staff and began to complete small capital projects for the City. The renegotiation of the Gallery Lease allowed for both the redevelopment of the property as well as eliminated the single-largest liability on the PRA’s balance sheet.  Through a loan, Brian completed the capital stack that allowed for the redevelopment of the Divine Lorraine Hotel and developed a workforce housing model that used the PRA’s assets as a partial incentive for mixed income neighborhoods. He completed the country’s largest Urban Renewal Area in Eastwick by buying the development rights from Korman Properties.  Finally, He supported dozens of affordable housing projects in various Philadelphia communities. He also improved morale and signed a contract with 1971 for the first time in more than 10 years.

The Philadelphia Land Bank was initially intended to unify multiple land inventories and disposition processes, which were confusing to the public and developers.  While he had concerns about the final form of the Land Bank and the legislation as finally passed, recognizing the PLB as a Nutter Administration priority, he worked to align the PRA’s priorities and resources to allow the PLB to succeed. 

PRA’s projects do, in fact, have significant community input and he personally attended a number of community meetings.  Most notably, there was a strong engagement process around Logan Triangle and the efforts to locate Phila Youth Basketball on the Triangle.  Additionally, the close-out of the Eastwick Urban Renewal Area was largely driven by the Eastwick Community.

2. Use of Eminent Domain: James Dupree Studios case study

What the oppositions says:

While Brian Abernathy served as  Executive Director of PRA, the organization attempted to seize Philadelphia artist James Dupree’s community art studio using eminent domain, demolish the building, and sell it for private investment. PRA attempted to pay Philadelphia artist James Dupree $600,000 for his studio (later appraised at $2.2 million), then condemned it in an attempt to evict. Dupree had bought the dilapidated warehouse in 2005 and invested in turning the studio into a thriving community space; hosting art classes and mentorship programs. Under Abernathy’s leadership PRA launched a multi-year court battle to seize and bulldoze Dupree’s studio/community center and turn it over to private developers. Dupree was able to keep his studio.

What the City says:

The taking of James Dupree’s property was required to complete a project designed to bring a grocery store to the Mantua community (a recognized food desert).  The project was supported by the Nutter Administration and Councilwoman Blackwell and was initiated in 2012 - prior to Brian becoming Executive Director. In 2014, at Brian’s recommendation, the developer, Councilwoman and Mayor all agreed that Mr. Dupree should be allowed to keep the Studio and the project was dropped.

Like many, Brian has concerns about eminent domain and how Philadelphia has used its condemnation powers, historically.  Eminent Domain is a traumatic act – some see the taking of someone’s home or business as an attack. While eminent domain will always be necessary under select circumstances, the government should recognize its traumatic impact on property owners and the surrounding community.

3. ICE and Philadelphia Police

What the opposition says:

2001 Police Commissioner Memorandum prohibits police officers from disclosing immigration status to federal immigration authorities unless the person is ‘suspected of engaging in criminal activities.’

In 2009 Mayor Nutter signed executive order 8.09, prohibiting officers from asking Philadelphians about immigration status, or disclosing that status to ICE without ICE providing a federal judicial warrant for a violent crime.

In 2014 another executive order signed by Nutter prohibited Philadelphia Police from detaining people for ICE (ICE holds), and turning over Philadelphians with no criminal convictions to ICE.

Under Abernathy’s leadership the Philadelphia police department (and Abernathy himself) have repeatedly violated those policies. Abernathy has said that officers are not prohibited from sharing information with ICE on someone’s immigration status if the officer ‘somehow learned it,’ or if the person was suspected of a crime. Officers continue to violate city policies; retaining or reporting undocumented people at traffic stops, and inquiring about their documentation status based on perceived ethnicity. Abernathy has defended these officers, calling their actions a ‘simple misunderstanding of policy.’ Abernathy has not prioritized training his officers on Philadelphia immigration policy, and allows these human rights violations (as well as Stop and Frisk violations) to continue.

With Abernathy at the helm, it is no surprise that the Philadelphia ICE field office “arrests more immigrants without criminal convictions than any other ICE region.” This is a clear violation of city policies and human rights, and demonstrates a clear disregard for the wellbeing of Philadelphians; his leadership jeopardizes decades of work to make Philadelphians a true Sanctuary City.

Abernathy himself has repeatedly called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on people being released on bail--violating city policy, mayoral directives, and Philadelphia’s sanctuary status. In 2014 Mayor Nutter signed an executive order forbidding Philadelphia police to detain people for ICE. On five separate occasions Abernathy has called ICE to inform them on people without documentation being released from jail. Not only does this violate city policy, but also the policy and expressed directives of Mayor Kenney.

What the City says:

Brian’s testimony in the Sanctuary City trial on our policies was clear - the City’s Executive Order declares that immigration status is confidential and should not be shared, no matter how it was discovered. There have been instances where officers have improperly detained individuals or have notified ICE inappropriately.  When reported, an Internal Affairs investigation takes place and when the charges are founded, progressive discipline is applied. We continue to encourage advocates and service agencies to file Complaints Against Police and to notify us when issues arise.

4. Stop and Frisk

What the opposition says:

The unconstitutional, racist, and unethical practice of Stop and Frisk continues to violate the rights of Philadelphia's (predominantly black and brown people) across the city. Stop and Frisk practices explicitly demonstrate the damage Philadelphia Police conduct on black and brown communities. Neighborhoods that are primarily African American have 70% more reports of people being illegally stopped than neighborhoods that are primarily white. Under Abernathy’s leadership one in five stops by Philadelphia Police were conducted with no reasonable suspicion.While the number of reported stop and frisks are decreasing, this may be due to the very low standards Abernathy set forward on what constitutes reasonable suspicion, as well as a reclassification of “sight arrests,” where they no longer count as a ‘stop and frisk.’

Kenney campaigned on the promise to end stop and frisk, and so far has not been able to control officers who illegally stop Philadelphians on the street. Under Abernathy’s leadership officers are rarely held accountable for a violation of policies, and continue to violate the human rights of Philadelphians--especially black and brown people.

What the city says:

Brian has supported the Police Department’s efforts to reduce unconstitutional pedestrian stops. In the City’s most recent report, the City notes that the Philadelphia Police Department continues to achieve drastically reduced numbers of pedestrian stops occurring without officers properly documenting the requisite reasonable suspicion.  For the first and second quarters of 2018, PPD estimates only 16% (6,773 out of 41,661) of stops were made without properly documented reasonable suspicion. These are the lowest numbers of stops conducted without properly documented reasonable suspicion and total number of stops during any two quarters – separately or combined – since the onset of this litigation.  These numbers mark an enormous decrease from the estimated 91,977 stops in the first and second quarters of 2015 of which an estimated 53% (48,539) were made without properly documented reasonable suspicion.

5. Body Camera Contract

What the opposition says:

Abernathy made the expensive and embarrassing mistake of negotiating the city’s contract with a private company to purchase body cameras for officers. Abernathy signed a four year, no competition/no bid, $12.5 million contract with Axon. Axon’s storage systems only work with its own devices, and the city contract apparently couldn’t afford to overhaul storage; making the use of data from body cameras much more difficult. The city also overpaid for camera over 400% compared to contracts with Axon in other cities: Philadelphia spends $400/camera (LA spends $99/camera). Whether Abernathy signed on to this contract because of incompetency, political corruption, or an attempt to thwart oversight and systemic use of the camera is up for debate.

What the City says:

Brian neither negotiated or signed the contract, although did make the decision to move forward. The City had recently invested in an evidence management system.  When we began testing body worn camera systems, one requirement was that they must be compatible with that system. Additionally, through the pilot, only 2 cameras were determined to meet PPD’s requirements – Axon and Wolf. In the meantime, Axon purchased the evidence management system company – a calculated move that guaranteed that they would be the only company that could compete for Philadelphia’s business.  As such, we moved forward knowing Axon was the only company we could use. We found the least expensive vehicle we could to move forward. To replace the evidence management system and BWC, the implementation of BWC would have been delayed for years.

6. Police Accountability Commission & Complaints Against Police

What the opposition says:

In 2017 Kenney signed an executive order to upload civilian complaints against police to a searchable online database. Abernathy stepped in to make sure the names of police officers in the database were redacted, limiting the utility of the database, and hiding public information. Under Abernathy’s management, the police department has denied media requests to provide complaint case numbers; blocking many reporters capacity to cover police misconduct and corruption. As is Abernathy’s pattern, there were no public meetings or consultation with community representatives when making this change.

After the resignation of Kelvyn Anderson, Abernathy admitted to hiring interim Police Accountability Commission director Erica Atwood without any public input or announcement. After the murder of David Jones, Atwood neglected to deploy investigators to the scene of the shooting (against PAC policy), and did not investigate the issue. Abernathy himself took a leadership role in PAC, and kept all input of the process restricted to the Managing Director’s Office where Abernathy himself works.

What the city says: 

Brian pushed for additional information involving civilian complaints against police to be available online.  To do that, he authored and the Mayor signed the new Executive Order. At no time was it intended to post officer’s names.  Further, additional updates to the data are needed and work is being completed with the police department now to finalize and implement those changes.

When the previous PAC director abruptly resigned, the Board agreed to hire Erica Atwood at Brian’s recommendation.  Erica’s qualifications are not questioned – she has a national reputation as a strong leader and advocate. Her appointment was temporary and her primary focus was to evaluate the organization and make recommendations for its improvement.  As a result, Brian wrote and the Mayor signed a new Executive Order that repositioned the PAC and guaranteed new members would be appointed. A nationwide search was completed for a new Executive Director when Hans Menos was selected. Additionally, the PAC’s budget has increased by $400,000 (160% increase), largely based on Brian’s recommendations.

7. Block Party Oversight

What the opposition says:

In August of 2018 Abernathy originated a policy requiring that applications for Block Party permits be pre-approved by the Police Department before going to the Streets Department for Approval. While Abernathy claimed that the change to the process was meant to streamline the process for applying for permits, this change (before being reversed again) greatly limited many neighborhoods with ‘high crime rates’ from hosting block parties, as well as creating additional barriers for 922 blocks that were essentially banned from hosting a block party. While Abernathy has since apologized and reversed the policy, his pattern of not soliciting any community input has resulted in consistent burdens to communities (especially those already marginalized). 

What the city says:

Block party permits have always required police approvals.  Too often this summer, police received notice of block party applications too late and were often forced to “cancel” events after they had been approved by Streets.  With that in mind, Brian asked that PPD approve applications before the application was approved by Streets.

What he didn’t know at the time was that the Streets process had been nearly automated.  In other words, someone would submit an application online, Streets would approve and then they would forward the permit to police.  The change he requested required Streets to abandon the online system and go to a completely paper system. That wasn’t the intent and, in the future, someone in the Department will notify me (Mike Dunn) of unforeseen consequences before we implement changes.  Brian has since initiated a technology upgrade that allows police to access the same database in real time to which Streets has access.

8. Safe Injection Sites/Overdose Prevention Sites

What the opposition says:

While Abernathy apparently has had a change of heart, initially his response to advocates who wanted to create the life-saving spaces was ‘hell no.’ After visiting Seattle and Vancouver, WA, Abernathy has apparently changed his mind. However, he is still apprehensive about the new policy, calling safe-injection sites “shooting galleries sanctioned by the city”

What the City says:

Brian has been one of the strongest voices in the Administration in support of Overdose Preventions Sites, actively advising SafeHouse, and advocating with the US Attorney and the PA Attorney General.

TWITTER: @ANDREAJCANTOR

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