Can Citizens Keep Philly Cops in Line?

The toothless Police Advisory Commission doesn't have the power to squash police brutality.

At the outset, I must say this: Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission (PAC) is made up of well-intentioned and civic-minded professionals. Unfortunately, however, the PAC itself is a complete waste. And that’s because it’s nothing more than a paper tiger. No, it’s a cardboard kitten. Actually, it’s a tissue pussy (cat). It does absolutely nothing to stop police brutality, abuse or corruption. It can’t put brutal, abusive or corrupt cops in jail. It can’t fire, demote or suspend them. It can’t do shit. Well, it can do shit—in the form of meaningless recommendations and advice.

Pursuant to Executive Order 8-93, which was signed by Mayor Edward Rendell on December 21, 1994, the mayor-appointed commission, with 15 full members and four alternate members, can forward “recommendations” to the “police commissioner, the mayor, and the managing director for their review and appropriate action.” Section 4(a) of that order indicates that the PAC has the (supposed) “power” to “advise the police commissioner and the managing director on … actions of the police department … ” and 4(e) states that it “ … may make … recommendations … ” But the real unrestrained influence is found in 4(f)(2), which points out that the PAC can make recommendations for “specific actions directed at individual officers … provided, however, that the police commissioner and managing director shall retain full and ultimate authority, power, discretion … to … take … lawful actions they deem appropriate … ”

So why the hell does the PAC even exist since the cops ultimately got all the juice? This is precisely why the PAC should stand for Perfunctory And Condemnable, meaning, as the dictionary makes clear, that which “is done merely as form without substance” and that which “should be declared unfit for use” (e.g., as in a dilapidated house unfit for human habitation).

Why was there even a need for a PAC? The answer, in the words of Human Rights Watch, is that “the Philadelphia police department (in terms of) corruption and brutality … has one of the worst reputations of big city police departments in the United States.” Moreover, “the persistence and regularity of the (corruption and brutality) cycles indicate that between the front-page news stories, the city and its police force are failing to act to hold the police accountable. The result is an undisturbed culture of impunity that surfaces and is renewed with each successive scandal, as each new generation of police officers is taught through example that their leadership accepts corruption and excessive force.”

The history of Philadelphia’s policing force began with citizens, not police, when Hans Block in 1663 created the first protective patrol in the city’s Swedish section (in Southwest Philly) that was later followed by “Town Watch.” This Town Watch security system remained in effect until 1751 when the state legislature established the first paid police agency consisting of wardens and constables. The Consolidation Act of 1854, which merged the city and county into one entity, led to the revised modern-day Philadelphia Police Department.

Fast-forward to recent history, approximately the last 70 years. Let’s start with race because, as you know, I always play the race card—which probably has something to do with America having created the race deck with slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow and de facto discrimination. And it continues to cheat with marked cards. As recently as the 1940s, it wasn’t just the department’s brutality, abuse and corruption against black civilians that were rampant, there was also unbelievable racism within the department. As recounted by James N. Reaves, who was sworn in in 1940 and became the city’s first black captain, African-American cops were barred from driving—and even riding in—police cars. Can you believe that shit?

By 1958, things had gotten so bad with police attacks on innocent civilians, the vast majority of whom were black, that Mayor Richardson Dilworth created something that had never before existed in this country: a Police Advisory Board (PAB). But just like the PAC, the PAB was toothless from the very beginning because it did not have the authority to discipline anyone. It could only “recommend” appropriate action. But any time the police commissioner or the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) replied “eff that and eff you,” the PAB got pregnant (like its younger sibling PAC does today). In fact, the FOP, on December 22, 1969, forced Mayor James Tate to abort the PAB, a death the Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo accurately described as a “Christmas present to cops.”

Why was and is there a need for a civilian entity to have the authority to severely punish cops proven to be brutal, abusive or corrupt? Let’s see how the country’s top law enforcement officials answered that. In 1979, Philadelphia became nationally notorious when its police department became the first in America to be sued by the United States Department of Justice for having committed or condoned “widespread and severe” acts of police brutality.

Shouldn’t there be an entity to adequately punish cops like Rodney Hunt, who, in 1990, killed a man that court testimony indicated had been shot nine times in the back and buttocks and also had been shot at least once while lying face down, especially if that same officer in 1991—when a grand jury was investigating the 1990 homicide—while off-duty at a 3 a.m. party, fired 14 shots, wounding a man who had fired at him and also wounding an innocent female bystander? Although he was incredibly acquitted in the 1990 killing, the city ended up paying a $900,000 civil settlement. But even more incredibly, he was reinstated in 1994 with back pay, and three years later was assigned to the Second District. WTMF?

And what about officers like Christopher Rudy who in 1993, while hanging out and drinking with friends in a warehouse, helped one of those friends out by luring a man to that warehouse and then watched him get tortured, menaced with a gun, and threatened with homosexual rape while he personally beat the man and poured beer in his face—all while ignoring police radio calls, including one “officer needs assistance” call. After receiving a 12-day suspension slap on the wrist for failing to take police action, inflicting physical abuse, providing false statements, and engaging in conduct unbecoming a police officer, he was returned to active duty. No bullshit. After all that, he was returned to active duty. Also, what about cops like the six-foot, three-inch, 290-pound Carl Holmes who, in 1992, after seeing a man urinating in an alley, tackled the man, kicked him, hit him in the head, slammed him into a car, and stepped on his penis? Did I mention that the man was a kidney patient who was six inches shorter and 100 pounds lighter than Holmes? Holmes’s 20-day suspension was reduced to five, and he was later promoted to lieutenant. Swear to god.

What about all of the numerous brutality, abuse and corruption incidents that were regularly reported by the Philadelphia Tribune, and that culminated in the so-called “Race Riot” in the ’60s that was ignited by an officers’s August 28th assault on motorist Odessa Bradford at 23rd and Columbia. The three-day riot resulted in the arrest of 774 blacks, but no cops; more than 300 were injured. How about the demeaning August 31, 1970 strip search of unarmed Black Panthers at 35th and Wallace? And the August 8, 1978 videotaped brutal beating, kicking, stomping, and near-lynching of an empty-handed, arms-raised, surrendering Delbert Africa? And don’t forget the May 13, 1985 police bombing, falsely referred to as the MOVE bombing. Or the “Five Squad” of the late 1980s and the 39th District from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s that involved nearly 1,400 cases of brutality, abuse, corruption, false arrest, perjury and theft. How about the Republican Convention in 2000 when more than 400 persons were arrested after many of them had been spied on and harassed but most charges were dismissed? And what about the surreptitiously videotaped destruction by police of video-recording equipment in 2007 during their alleged thefts in Latino and Asian neighborhood stores? And 2009’s unconstitutional and racist Stop and Frisk?

The solution is not Internal Affairs because that’s nothing more than one hand washing—and shaking—the other. Arbitration is more of a cop-rewarding joke than an objective quasi-judicial, justice-seeking system. The Integrity and Accountability Office died with its eighth and final report in 2004. And the PAC is as effective as dead men (and women) walking.

A perfect example of PAC’s ineffectiveness is the 2010 Anthony Bey case. After police officers Robert Bakos and John Descher broke into Bey’s house, pointed guns at the unarmed occupants, handcuffed then physically assaulted one of them, and unconstitutionally searched the premises without a warrant and without finding any weapons, drugs or anything else. PAC’s verdict? A “recommendation” that the cops “review … a police directive … and … study … Constitutional requirements of warrantless searches.” Yeah, that oughta teach those thuggish cops that they’ll pay a heavy price for breaking into innocent people’s houses, pointing guns at them, shackling them, and beating them up.

What’s the solution? Well, it begins with attending the PAC’s next meeting on February 27th at 6:30 p.m. at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center at 740 South 17th Street, and asking the dedicated and well-meaning PAC members to demand real authority from the mayor or to resign in protest. A commendably complete nothing is better than a counterproductively half-assed something.