The revelation that Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and a small number of Philadelphia's top-ranking officials signed off on the use of tear gas during the mass protests last week came out during a City Council hearing Wednesday.
The controversial decision was made by a group called "Unified Command" that included the mayor, police commissioner, Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel and several other high-ranking members of Kenney's administration, according to Managing Director Brian Abernathy during an exchange with City Councilwoman Helen Gym.
Abernathy was also a member of the Unified Command group, he said. The group formed Saturday, May 30, on the first day of mass protests.
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"Who explicitly was involved in the approval of the tear gas during the incident on (Interstate) 676?" Gym asked Outlaw during a budget hearing, referring to an incident June 1 on the third day of protests in Philadelphia following the death of George Floyd.
"So, like I said, there are several after-action reports being generated. Overall, the Unified Command group did approve the use of less-lethal munitions within policy, and it was left to the commander on ground to make the determination as it was deemed necessary," Outlaw responded.
"So there was no one outside the police department that approved it, is that correct?" Gym asked.
"I'm not sure about the question," Outlaw answered, before Gym followed up.
"Was there anyone from the (Kenney) administration that was involved in the decision-making on the tear gas?" Gym asked.
"Yes, that's who the Unified Command group is," Outlaw said.
Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who was on the virtual budget hearing video conference, then stepped in and named the members of the group.
"It was that group who made the overarching decision to allow less lethal munitions and leave it up to the supervisors on the ground within policy," Abernathy said.
Others on the Unified Command include Kenney's chief of staff Jim Engler, Deputy Managing Director Tumar Alexander and City Solicitor Marcel Pratt, Abernathy said.
"That's news to me," Gym said.
Tear gas was used against hundreds of protesters who stormed the Vine Street Expressway during rush hour last Monday. Videos and photographs of protesters trapped on a grassy embankment along the highway went viral.
At least one police officer standing on the highway could be seen tossing the gas cannisters into the trapped crowd.
Kenney and Outlaw defended the use of tear gas a day after the scene on the expressway. Kenney at the time acknowledged he did sign off on the use of the tear gas.
Abernathy on Wednesday said the use of tear gas and rubber bullets by the police department was authorized May 31, the day before the Vine Street Expressway event. The Unified Command group gave the approval after seeing footage of violent confrontations between police and protesters in West Philadelphia, a city spokesman said.
The authorization was given verbally, the spokesman said.
Officials did not specifically approve of tear gas on the expressway, Kenney spokesman Mike Dunn said, adding that a police commander on scene decided to use it.
"[The decision] was made because we simply cannot condone behaviors that endanger the lives of others, like traversing an open highway," Kenney said. "The officers on site were concerned about the safety of protestors as well as those who may be driving on the highway.
“After issuing several warnings, they made the decision to deploy tear gas to encourage the crowd to disperse. While I regret that it came to that, and I am disturbed by the footage that I’ve seen, I support decisions made by the department to resolve today’s activity."
Outlaw said a crowd of more than 100 people had surrounded a state trooper alone inside a vehicle and began rocking it. When two SWAT teams arrived, members of the crowd threw rocks at them from the north and south sides as well as from bridges above, according to Outlaw.
Outlaw also said the crowd began rushing toward the officers and ignored numerous orders from the SWAT team to disperse. The SWAT teams then fired spray pellets, bean bags and tear gas at the crowd, according to Outlaw.
No footage of protesters surrounding the state police vehicle has become public.
School teacher Kelsey Romano, one of the hundreds of protesters on the expressway, said police were blocking the path of protesters on 22nd Street near the Ben Franklin Parkway. That's when many entered I-676 through a hole in the fence.
"And I was like, we'll be on here for a little bit. You know, we'll cause a half hour delay, and I was very wrong," Romano told NBC10.
She was stuck by a rubber bullet, which gave her a welt, as she tried climbing the grassy embankment before a police officer zip-tied her hands. She was dragged down the hill and arrested.