John McNesby’s Massive Influence on Philadelphia Policing
As FOP president, his political base is small, but his power is huge. Is this any way to run a police department?
The meeting hall was packed when John McNesby took the podium that day in August 2017. McNesby, the president of Philadelphia’s police union, read from prepared remarks and spoke with urgency. The occasion, “Back the Blue” at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge in Northeast Philadelphia, offered support to police who felt embattled. Across the country, activists from the Black Lives Matter movement had been condemning police shootings, and local protesters had employed a new tactic, turning up at the home of a Philly cop who in June had fatally shot a fleeing black man in the back.
There had been just 10 or so protesters, one wielding a megaphone, but it was enough to disrupt an otherwise quiet Bustleton neighborhood and rattle police, who’d never been confronted at their homes before. Now McNesby was getting his turn at the podium. A measured approach could have smothered the smoldering tension in the room; instead, McNesby doused it with gasoline. “When you go work each day,” he spat into the microphone, “you shouldn’t have to worry that a pack of rabid animals will suddenly show up at your home. … ”
To anyone praying for even a semblance of reason or calm, the line was tone-deaf and deeply offensive, dehumanizing the protesters, who were mostly black, as “animals” and stoking further racial division. And that was the frightening part. Because McNesby is an elected labor boss, his words were presumably chosen to satisfy his base: the police.
Mayor Jim Kenney, in his own public comments, spoke more cautiously: The protesters, who dropped f-bombs and referred to police as “pigs,” “did nothing” to move police-community relations forward, he said. But McNesby’s “divisive” response only exacerbated discord.
In the year and a half since, McNesby’s outburst has emerged as a watershed moment — illuminating the rift between police and the people they’re sworn to protect as well as highlighting the ways the police union appears bent on widening that gap.
“I’ve wondered about this a lot,” says former Philadelphia police officer Christa Hayburn. “The FOP is a perpetual problem … and yet no one ever focuses on them.”
One reason is that labor unions are unaccountable to the public, their machinations a black box. Another is that McNesby — riding the prevailing winds of the culture wars — has amassed considerable clout. Since 2007, when his presidency began, he has tamped down police reforms in Philadelphia, won the right for cops to contribute to the union’s PAC, and constructed a fiefdom, advancing candidates and defending even the most indefensible cops.
In essence, the FOP boss serves as a thinly camouflaged city official, supported by a narrow constituency that holds its meetings in private while wielding outsize influence over our most crucial public safety department. So this is a story not so much about a man, McNesby, as about his office — the presidency of the FOP — and its relationship to the police department.
All over the country — even right here in Philadelphia — there are signs of change. There are people trying to agitate for justice in our culture, often by holding police accountable for their actions. Yet in Philadelphia, John McNesby holds the political sway to undermine those actions, rallying the rank and file to a vision in which police, sworn to protect and serve, are the ones best protected — even from the consequences of their own misconduct.
The upshot is that Philadelphia remains caught in the throes of the racial injustice and police corruption that have defined our history. And the question we’re left with is: Can we possibly change that? Can the FOP be reformed?
John J. McNesby first joined the police department in 1989, working as a patrolman and later a narcotics officer in the East Division. Given the scandal-plagued history of city narcotics cops, McNesby’s career is refreshingly nondescript, with no pile of civil rights lawsuits or cloud of suspicion over his name.
The 53-year-old McNesby declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. Given the long time he has spent in office, it’s surprising how little is known about his career. He has given perhaps his most extensive interviews to the Northeast Times, and from those we’ve learned that he has always had his eye on politics. Just one year into his police career, he tried to follow in the footsteps of his father, George, a Philly cop who’d served on the FOP board, but that first precocious run for a seat failed. Ten years later, McNesby finally became a union trustee, and in 2007 he ran and won a race for president, beginning a tenure that’s been cloaked in success: steady pay increases, healthy benefits packages, a victorious court fight allowing the union to become a bigger political force, and a couple of decisions that enabled Philly cops to thumb their noses at Philly — winning the right for police with five years on the force to live outside the city limits, and moving the union’s HQ from Spring Garden Street to a sprawling 3.5-acre compound in Northeast Philadelphia, complete with a bar-restaurant open from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m.
His political constituency looks small: McNesby has said he’s got 14,000 union members, of whom 7,000 are retirees, with just a third of members voting in a typical election. But as Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, notes, “That doesn’t include friends and family,” who extend the union’s influence beyond dues-paying members. It also misses the ways in which McNesby’s shtick predicted Trump. His antipathy toward the inner city, bellicose public statements and law-and-order stance all mirror Trump’s appeal to his own narrow-but-winning constituency.
“Of course he’s like Trump,” says longtime Philly power broker Vince Fumo, who once wielded vast control over city politics from a perch in the state Senate. “He knows how to play to his base.”
On TV, McNesby appears squat and jowly, with the build of a diving bell and a manner that’s all id. He puts on a show for the cameras no matter the charge an officer faces, with a vow to defend the cop and return him or her to duty. Behind the scenes, however, McNesby is described as a professional. “He knows everyone has a job to do,” says one confidant, “and none of this is personal.” So his vitriol is reserved for a captive public.
This dynamic of an outwardly combative union chief isn’t unique to Philly. Here and elsewhere, police commissioners have for at least 20 years instituted or acquiesced to reform: civilian oversight boards that create greater transparency with the public, early warning systems employing statistical measures to flag potentially abusive cops, protocol changes to reduce car and foot chases to minimize dangerous engagements. And almost invariably, FOPs push back.
Some greatest hits here locally: In June 2010, McNesby declared stringent new rules regarding police misconduct “would be at the bottom of a litter box pretty soon,” then successfully challenged them before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. In 2012, McNesby mocked the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission, stating: “No one pays any attention to them.” And in 2015, McNesby declared the mayoral candidacy of former DA Lynne Abraham — a longtime tough-on-crime, pro-cop politician — to be over after she spoke to FOP members about pension changes and progressive reforms.
Specifically, Abraham referenced Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which published recommendations designed to keep officers safe and build “trust and legitimacy” with the public, including implementation of de-escalation techniques and implicit bias training. The document pushed police and the public to reject “us vs. them” thinking, and McNesby responded hotly. Abraham “took herself right out of the race,” he said, declaring the 21st Century model something “we don’t want to hear about.”
You could view this as just childish stubbornness — as the FOP plugging its ears and saying, Nyah, nyah, nyah, we’re not listening to Lynne Abraham. But the ramifications of resisting reform are serious, particularly in Philadelphia, where past police practices have a name: Frank Rizzo.
A former city police chief and mayor, Rizzo towered over Philadelphia from the 1960s to the mid-’80s. He opposed school desegregation and the civil rights movement; stoked the size, budget and pension plans of the police force; and presided over a department that was brutal and even murderous. His cops strip-searched African-Americans in front of the media, beat suspects, and in one eight-year run starting in 1970 shot and killed 162 people before the Justice Department finally intervened.
Almost 30 years on from his last political race, Frank Rizzo is dead. The FOP doesn’t openly defend his record of police brutality. Yet Frank Rizzo lives on. There’s still a statue of the man across from City Hall, though after a long fight, it’s to be removed — like some Confederate monument down South — in the next couple of years. And Philadelphia still has a base of Rizzo supporters. One current Philly cop launched into a racist tirade on social media during a debate over the statue, calling an African-American woman a “ghetto ass.” Far worse, the FOP maintains Rizzo’s legacy by protecting cops against attempts to punish them for misconduct to a degree no other public-sector union can.
Across the country, in fact, the FOP — which has a national office — has stumped for Officer’s Bill of Rights laws. Police in many parts of the country have protections that would be alarming if extended to the public. Here in Philly, cops enjoy a provision in which records of written reprimands are scrubbed from their files if they aren’t found guilty of anything else for two years — their sins are washed away.
Most famously, however, Philly police reap the benefits of a highly favorable system of arbitration for their contracts and discipline in which the FOP gets to help select the arbitrators. McNesby’s FOP has publicly bragged that its success rate when challenging punishments is 90 percent. City officials have pushed back on this figure, but police brass have long complained that too many cops they fire come right back through arbitration.
As former police chief Charles Ramsey admitted, “It’s very hard to maintain discipline in a police department, especially when at every turn you have cases that wind up getting overturned.”
So the city police department tries to build trust and legitimacy, while an angry and effective union boss says no.
On June 8, 2017, police officer Ryan Pownall was delivering a trio of passengers to the special victims unit when he spotted a man illegally driving a dirt bike on city streets. Pownall stopped and searched 30-year-old David Jones and discovered a handgun in his waistband. A scuffle ensued. Jones broke free. And Pownall fired, striking Jones twice in the back and killing him.
Jones’s weapon was discovered 25 feet behind where Pownall was standing when he fired. If the case goes to trial, the most important argument will be about when Pownall became aware that Jones had ditched his gun.
The case precipitated the BLM protest and McNesby’s “rabid animals” remark. In September 2017, Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced Pownall’s firing. A year later, the city’s reformer district attorney, Larry Krasner, charged Pownall with homicide. But his case is even more important because of what preceded it.
In 2010, Pownall had shot another fleeing man, Carnell Williams-Carney, who wound up paralyzed. An investigation by City & State Pennsylvania showed that before Pownall ever drew his weapon on David Jones, there had been 30 citizen complaints against him, including allegations of excessive force and racial slurs — a number far beyond what the average cop incurs. McNesby, predictably, has vowed to get Pownall cleared and back to work. But the most salient question is: Why, in June 2017, was Ryan Pownall still a police officer?
To understand how the FOP-influenced arbitration system undermines efforts to hold cops accountable, consider the case of another officer, Richard Nicoletti. On August 20, 2018, Nicoletti fatally shot 36-year-old motorist Jeffrey Dennis; in the incident, captured on video, Nicoletti and fellow cops clearly break multiple protocols. They box Dennis’s Toyota Camry in with their unmarked vehicles, then exit their cars to surround Dennis’s — a violation of directives not to put themselves in danger that might escalate into violence.
Dennis, seemingly in a panic, tries to drive out of this box, bumping some of the officers, though, tellingly, he doesn’t just run them over. Police rules dictate that being in the path of a vehicle doesn’t justify gunfire, so Nicoletti and his fellow officers had one departmentally approved response: Get away and take cover. Instead, about a minute into the interaction, Nicoletti approaches the driver-side window and fires three shots at point-blank range — striking Dennis in the head and killing him.
The subtext here is so obvious that it’s simply text: Nicoletti, a 29-year veteran, predates these modern directives to de-escalate. And his flouting of protocols led directly to a fatality.
According to a source inside the Philly PD, Nicoletti is only being punished with a suspension and transfer — which looks like an acknowledgement that harder discipline would be overturned in arbitration anyway. (A police public-affairs spokesman says final discipline has not yet been decided.) Critics would see this as another failing of the department, but it’s a natural outgrowth of the FOP’s power: A rank-and-file cop, knowing he’s protected, can simply ignore modern policing policy. Pownall’s history makes the same point: The police department’s early warning system, meant to flag suspect cops before tragedies occur, is rendered toothless because the city ultimately lacks the power to dismiss problem cops.
We tend to view these police-civilian shooting cases in terms of race: Pownall and Nicoletti, both white cops, killed fleeing black males. And whether armed or unarmed, black males are shot by police — and not just white police — at far higher rates than are whites. But racial tensions are also a problem inside the department.
In 2015, Philly cop Robert Pawlowski walked into the FOP lounge and launched into a racist tirade, calling one African-American supervisor a “banana-eating monkey” and imploring white cops not to associate with a group of black supervisors. Fellow cops actually turned Pawlowski in on that one, but he was only suspended — open racism, in the face of a contentious FOP and a slanted arbitration system, wasn’t quite a firing offense.
Last summer, a homicide cop named Jimmy Crone penned an open note evidently referring to a black colleague as a “filthy savage.” In recent weeks, another homicide cop, John Komorowski, got caught on video in a car with an alleged prostitute and then called the man filming him a “white n-.”
An African-American cop who requested anonymity calls these more recent incidents “a disgrace” but has no expectation such officers will face any significant punishment. “This stuff,” the cop says, “happens all the time.”
Historians and criminologists have long noted that police forces started as avowedly racist institutions, arising from Southern slave patrols that slowly gained additional responsibilities. And this history, like Rizzo, appears not quite past.
Longtime city civil rights attorney David Rudovsky says, “There is no question that law enforcement has typically been used in the country’s history to put down labor strikes and control minority populations.” Considering these authoritarian and racist roots, “I think it’s legitimate to wonder if those origins remain baked into the force’s DNA.”
McNesby has contributed to the literature. His use of the phrase “pack of rabid animals” to describe Black Lives Matter protesters has since been cited in scholarly articles on “Living Histories of White Supremacist Policing” and “The Fallacy of a Post-Racial America” as well as in an article in the Nation that called for ending FOPs altogether. So the cultural fracture widens. And another crowbar was set in place in May 2017, when DA candidate Larry Krasner easily won the Democratic primary on a reform platform.
During Krasner’s victory party, some supporters broke into chants that included “No good cops in a racist system” and “Fuck the FOP.”
Krasner disavowed the language, then and now, suggesting it was “just a few people” and saying he believes there are “lots of good police.” But McNesby responded with typical vitriol, calling the chanters the “parasites of the city” and declaring, “That’s what the campaign surrounded itself with.”
In the ensuing weeks, the FOP, which had endorsed Trump the previous year, doubled down by endorsing Republican DA candidate Beth Grossman. But Philadelphia’s Guardian Civic League, founded in 1956 as a labor group supporting black officers, went Democrat and endorsed Krasner.
The significance of this is hard to overstate. The city is 44 percent black, and the demographics of the police force, currently around one-third African-American, have never quite reflected that. The idea that in 2019, black officers need a labor organization of their own should be troubling enough. But Philly actually has two, including a local chapter of the National Black Police Association (NBPA), and these recent election cycles brought the departmental schism into focus: The GCL, a 2,000-member organization within the police force, supported a candidate who’d vowed to aggressively prosecute police and was siding with the same people McNesby had dismissed as “parasites.” The disagreement captured the degree to which the FOP is out of step with the city and a significant portion of its own membership.
On this January night in Southwest Philly, as G. Lamar Stewart speaks with dozens of Philadelphians, he hardly mentions that he’s a police officer.
Citizens approach him, mostly men, some so eager they can barely get their words out: “Is this where I go,” they ask, “for the jobs?”
“You bet, brother,” Stewart, 34, says, and points them toward people he calls “job developers” — recruitment and staffing specialists seeking applicants for positions in grocery and department stores, warehouses and linen companies and more. The idea is simple: a traveling jobs fair, organized and run by the city’s police department on the first Friday night of each month. But in practical and historical terms, it’s revolutionary.
“I know that a lot of my fellow police think this isn’t policing,” says Stewart. “But I disagree.”
On this night, the destinations include a grocery store, a deli, a barbershop, and a stop-and-go selling liquor, and Stewart leads a small brigade of police, activists and job recruiters. Before the night is over, they’ll sign up around 100 applicants, with expectations that 15 percent will find jobs.
Stewart maintains that this fits under the umbrella of police work because the job of any cop includes preventing crime. “When people have jobs,” he says, “the financial incentive to commit crime goes away. This is a crime-prevention strategy and also a strategy to change the perception people have of the city police.”
Dressed in civilian clothes, with a snug navy blue coat against the cold, Stewart has a runner’s build and finely etched features. He readily admits that the activists he includes in the program, among them Akhenaton Mikell and Bilal Qayyum, are there to “act as a buffer. Because I don’t want people who have a mistrust of the police to be scared away.”
For Stewart, this is a mission. As a young black male growing up in Germantown, he was “aware of the negative perception many people had of the police and understood it.”
He took time to settle on police work. At 30, he was a professional in corporate real estate and a Baptist pastor. He wanted to do something to heal the divide between police and the community but felt that “my calling was to change the culture from within.”
Stewart enrolled in the police academy, on a mission to change the police department — an ambition that activist Mikell calls “crazy and courageous.”
Stewart wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be easy. But according to retired Philadelphia police detective David Fisher, a grandfatherly man with a quiet demeanor, there was one day at the police academy when Stewart appeared “ready to quit.”
Fisher was visiting when a speaker neither man would identify gave a talk to the new recruits that was, Fisher says, very “us against them,” reinforcing for recruits the idea that they were entering a separate, more virtuous society.
“I sat with him,” Fisher says of Stewart, “and we shared our ambitions. I told him he could do what he’d set out to achieve and that I would be there to help him.”
Now, four years later, Fisher has reached one of his ambitions: He’s president of the Philly chapter of the NBPA. Stewart is his vice president, and they’re making headway with two programs the brass have embraced: the jobs fair, dubbed “Turning a New Corner,” and “Blades, Fades and Engage,” bringing police and citizens together in a Southwest Philly barbershop.
Stewart’s interactions at the job fair are subtly revealing. When he does identify himself as a cop to job seekers, he makes statements like, “We, the city police, are doing this to serve our community.” Or, to one young teen: “The next time you hear someone say, ‘The police don’t care about our community,’ you’ll know different.”
That term “our community” is the key to Stewart’s whole mission — a rejection of “us and them” thinking. From a distance, in the morass of controversies that surround police, this might seem a thin thread of hope. A semantic tweak? But there’s also reason to think these job fairs represent a new path for the city police.
Police Commissioner Ross, who declined to be interviewed for this piece, has upgraded police-community relations from a unit to a division — meaning increased prominence, money and staff, including its first-ever inspector, Altovise Love-Craighead, who calls the position “a sign of the commissioner’s commitment.”
This past January, as Stewart ran his jobs fair, Inspector Derrick Wood of the Southwest division accompanied him and said, “This is the future of policing. If you are not with this paradigm, there will be no future for you.”
Fisher agrees with Wood, but adds a caveat: There will be another administration after this one, and “that administration will either take this sort of initiative and build on it, or end it and recommit to that ‘us-vs.-them’ mentality.”
There is no reason, in other words, to think Philadelphia can’t remain in the grip of the past.
In 2013, when the FOP moved its headquarters to the Northeast, the shift demonstrated the group’s prosperity (total costs neared $10 million) and struck a harsh cultural note, planting the union on the whiter city outskirts, where in 2014 the FOP has said 68 percent of its members live.
Some police saw the move as symbolic. The union relocated, says one former officer, an African-American, to accommodate “the members they care about the most.”
It’s a critique that NBPA president Fisher echoes. “People think of the FOP as the police,” he says, “but it’s not reflective of the police or the community. The city is progressive, but the FOP is very much a Republican institution … and the meetings are almost entirely white, with just a sprinkle of color.”
In fact, one running joke within the union is that the FOP is the GOP. Fisher takes it a further step, noting that the FOP’s retirees hold the department back: “These people didn’t work with Rizzo, but certainly many of the retirees worked with the leadership that did and believed in his way of doing things.”
The upshot is that this link — between the FOP’s retirees and the days of wine and Rizzo — captures how the past remains so alive in our times, particularly here.
As University of South Alabama history professor Timothy J. Lombardo writes in his 2018 book Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics, anyone who wants to understand the dynamics that put Donald J. Trump in the White House need look no further than Philadelphia, where white ethnics fell in love with a populist braggart and bully. Working-class white ethnics and blue-collar Philadelphians “supported Rizzo throughout his political career,” writes Lombardo, “and through a series of challenges and controversies, because they saw him as one of their own.”
Even when he was caught lying and using the police to spy on political enemies, Rizzo never lost his base. In this respect, Rizzo — top cop, mayor — did a far better job than McNesby of foreshadowing Trump, whose lies, white ethnic populism, race baiting and apparent corruption don’t shake his core support. McNesby looms as Rizzo’s mini-me, hurling insults to the delight of a white ethnic blue-collar membership that likely perceives him — as Lombardo writes of Rizzo — as “unafraid to speak his mind.”
Just as white liberals and African-Americans joined together in a political coalition to defeat Rizzo, Fisher says he can see a new constituency forming in the police department: “I think many younger officers of any color, and certainly many young African-American officers, see the value of changing how the police operate and are perceived: to be more of a helpmate, serving the community.”
In the meantime, the past remains ever present. The first Republican candidate to declare his candidacy for the 2019 mayoral race is Billy Ciancaglini, whose cheery “Billy for Philly” slogan masks a platform and social media feed featuring pro-Trump, pro-FOP, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
McNesby has flirted with the idea of running for political office himself. But in 2015, when the Dems passed him over for a state Senate seat, he and the FOP threw support behind a Republican state House candidate named Martina White, who ultimately won the seat that Democrat Brendan Boyle vacated to join the U.S. House of Representatives.
In a way, John McNesby looms in Philly as Frank Rizzo’s mini-me, hurling insults to the delight of a white ethnic blue-collar membership that likely perceives him — in the same way Trump supporters view the President — as “unafraid to speak his mind.”
City campaign finance records dating back to 2015, when the FOP PAC was newly empowered, show the union has claimed expenditures exceeding $364,000. And White, who city records show receiving $4,000 in Philly FOP funds, has proven divisive. In April 2016, a group of Latino activists turned up her at her office and shot a video in which they asked her not to use the phrase “those people” to refer to Latino immigrants. In that video, a defensive White ultimately explodes: “This is what the benefit of being in America is! Freedom of speech! Please leave my office! Now!”
Reached via phone for this article and asked if she regretted the exchange, she snapped, “You’re insulting me right now.” When asked why the constituents’ request was a First Amendment concern — any different from a man named John saying he prefers to be called Jack — she hung up.
The FOP, however, appears bent on accommodating candidates with similar baggage. In November, Bill Heeney Sr. announced his candidacy for an at-large City Council seat at FOP headquarters. That same month, he was outed for sharing racist content on social media, including a meme of Barack Obama hugging Hillary Clinton with the text: “A Muslim hugging a pig.” Heeney remains a candidate; the FOP hasn’t publicly addressed the controversy.
That same month, McNesby appeared positively uninterested in a civil complaint filed by two Jewish police officers who alleged they’d been harassed for years; one said he’d discovered Nazi iconography carved into the locker next to his. In 2016, McNesby dismissed reports of an alleged Nazi tattoo on a Philadelphia police officer as “not a big deal.” And there appears to be virtually no accountability for McNesby or his organization, which faces little pushback.
In fact, in summer 2017, just weeks before the Black Lives Matter protest outside Pownall’s home, Mayor Kenney and McNesby negotiated yet another favorable police contract, leaving the current arbitration system largely intact.
The key to change might be public pressure. “There needs to be more attention on the role the FOP plays in police policy and politics,” says Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale. “They undoubtedly have a First Amendment right to say whatever they want, and the public has the same First Amendment right to subject them to constant scrutiny and criticism and make supporting them politically toxic for elected officials.”
In other words, protest.
Intriguingly, though, Vitale echoes the NBPA’s Fisher. “Police unions don’t necessarily reflect their membership,” Vitale says. “They represent a subset of more active members.”
And this idea — that the police’s representatives don’t actually represent the police — finds another adherent in a seemingly unlikely source: Larry Krasner. “I think there are a lot of good police,” says the DA. “I think it’s wonderful to see police in touch with the reality that young men who get jobs are much less likely to be involved in criminal activity. And I think it’s a good reflection on our police commissioner to be fostering this.”
Krasner, however, has fewer good things to say about the FOP. His own history with the group is obviously strained. He sued the police many dozens of times as a civil rights attorney. And in January, McNesby went on Fox News and alleged that Krasner’s policies were responsible for an uptick in crime. (The fact is, homicides and aggravated assaults are up, but the violent crime rate is down.) Back during the campaign, when Krasner came to the FOP’s headquarters to speak, he received a message through an intermediary: “I was told McNesby wanted me to know he ‘couldn’t guarantee my safety,’” he says. “I guess that was supposed to intimidate me.”
Krasner went, of course, and when he spoke, he looked out on a crowd of virtually all white faces — and old ones at that. The realization led Krasner, too, to see the possibility of a new coalition. “I think younger police, who were not raised in quite the same culture of brutality and corruption, understand there is a better way to do things,” he says, “and I believe they hold more power to create change, over time, than it might appear.”
For the last stop of the night, Officer Stewart improvises, leading everyone to a stop-and-go-type shop at 52nd and Westminster. The store, he says, is a known “hot spot,” selling alcohol and attracting prostitutes picking up customers. And when Stewart arrives, with several uniformed police in tow, at least a dozen people depart. “Fucking cops,” says one young lady, looking aghast before stalking off.
“We’ve just got to let this settle out a little bit,” Stewart says.
Sure enough, maybe 20 minutes later, the magic starts. People begin signing up with the job recruiters. And one man, clearly inebriated, his eyes red and tired, admits: “I don’t wanna be like this all the time.”
Then a man who’ll prove unforgettable announces himself. “I’ll tell you who I am,” he says. “I’m here to protect the women. Because they gonna be selling that pussy regardless, so I just keep an eye on ’em.”
He keeps on talking. “I used to have a 4.0,” he says at one point, touting his high-school GPA. “But then my father … ”
His voice trails off. He leaves the store to stand outside for a few minutes. The working women are gone, scared off by the cops. But he comes back, his attention fixated on one cop in particular: Inspector Derrick Wood, a big man in full uniform.
“Some of us are smart,” he says to Wood. “Some of us have some enlightenment.”
Wood, turning to look at the young man — braided, draped in sweatshirts and coats against the cold — doesn’t skip a beat. “I know people from the neighborhoods have intelligence,” says Wood. “I’m from North Philadelphia.”
The man looks shocked, rearing his head back momentarily, like a cameraman trying to widen his view. “Really?” he says.
The two men discuss North Philly street corners till the man appears satisfied Wood isn’t lying. “Respect,” he says. “Thank you for coming. I mean that.”
The store has calmed. People come in, buy beer, leave. But the man, still standing near the door, looks concerned. “Thank you for coming,” he says again. “Because I know just what these guys would do.”
He nods out the door at pair of white patrol cops who just walked onto the corner. “They’d kill us if they could,” he says, and then darts out, past the cops and away.
A moment later, one of the white police, William Kozlowski, throws his arms around Stewart in a fast embrace. “I love what Officer Stewart is doing,” he says. “I just think it’s so important.”
Kozlowski, it turns out, used to work for the city’s new community relations inspector, Altovise Love-Craighead, when she was captain of the 16th District. He even appeared in a public event she helped organize called “Walk in My Shoes.” “The idea,” he says, “was to bring police and members of the community together to tell the true stories of our lives. The whole point was for us to see each other as human beings, and it was just so, so powerful.”
The man who once had a 4.0 GPA is gone by now. And of course, the presence of Kozlowski — who would decidedly not kill everyone at the corner store if he could — doesn’t mean that police protesters should refashion their signs into kindling. But on this night at the corner of 52nd and Westminster, a world of possibilities seems to open up — because the fight to reform policing isn’t just happening in the streets. The battle is also happening inside the police department, where the good guys are trying to fashion some new future from our never-ending past.
Published as “John McNesby’s Bully Pulpit” in the March 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.