Un-Corrupting Philly’s Police Department

Internal discipline has ground to a halt. Here's the opportunity the Fraternal Order of Police won't take.

Philly’s police now have a spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove that they are on the side of the city’s citizens. They will almost certainly blow their chance.

The opportunity comes in the form of startling news that the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board last week struck down a substantial portion of the internal disciplinary code implemented by Commissioner Charles Ramsey in 2010. The board says the code should’ve been negotiated with the Fraternal Order of Police; the FOP says it would’ve welcomed such negotiations.

“The FOP is nothing if not reasonable,*” said union lawyer Thomas W. Jennings. “We’d much rather talk to them than litigate.”

*Try not to spit out your coffee.

Until the matter is settled, Ramsey says he will halt disciplining officers. Which is fine, because as we all know, discipline of Philly officers — whatever Ramsey’s intentions — has rarely amounted to anything. In high-profile case after high-profile case, officers caught on video doing abusive and corrupt things have returned to work. The “disciplinary” system has so many checks and balances that it renders actual discipline impossible — and if the result is that it sometimes appears that the Philadelphia Police Department is the largest collection of thugs, thieves, and bullies in the city, well, the average citizen couldn’t possibly be blamed.

Harsh? Too bad. The FOP has offered no public sign that it is institutionally interested in culling out Philly’s bad cops from its good ones. The union, of course, is obligated to protect its members, but it’s shown no sign of being interested in good policing. The result is that the union — and particularly its president, John McNesby — is consistently seen to make excuses for bad policing.

That can end now, if the union chooses.

All it has to do is come to the negotiating table ready to re-implement the rules that were just struck down — rules that for the first time (!!!!!) “prohibited sexual and racial harassment as well as engaging in sexual relations while on duty.”

If the Fraternal Order of Police cannot agree to re-implement those rules, then it will be, by definition, on the side of sexual and racial harassment, as well as engaging in sexual relations while on duty. There is no gray area here: Police officers can either hold themselves accountable to the law and its spirit, or they can hold themselves above it.

While they’re at the negotiating table, they might as well talk about a new process, as well as new rules. The FOP would work with Ramsey to come up with a process that gives accused cops their due process — including appeals — but also more effectively rids the department of bad police. Right now, nine out of every 10 officers that Ramsey tries to fire due to cause returns to the department. That’s an unacceptable statistic.

And for that matter, it might be a good time for the FOP to figure out its own internal processes. It is good and right that it provides assistance to members accused of corruption; if there’s a way the organization could draw a brighter line between that activity and the rest of its work — so that the union could be seen as advocating for good, noble, law-abiding policing — that might generate more public confidence in the whole department.

If the FOP really is reasonable, as Jennings says, if it really is ready to talk — well, this is a moment to seize, to prove that the city’s officers really do want to protect and serve the rest of us. Sorry to say, though: We won’t be holding our breath waiting for them to do the right thing.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.