If Christine Coulter Had Been Photographed Wearing a Swastika, She Would Have Resigned Already

Philadelphia’s acting police commissioner wore a shirt 25 years ago celebrating the racist police culture she now wants the city to believe she can help resolve. We are far past the point of giving second chances.

Acting Philadelphia Police Commissioner Christine Coulter at City Hall on August 21, 2019. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

On Tuesday afternoon, acting Philadelphia police commissioner Christine Coulter proved herself to be the very problem she’s now in charge of solving.

During a City Council hearing addressing racist and bigoted Facebook posts made by dozens of Philadelphia police officers, Coulter offered an apology for a 1994 photograph in which she is wearing a T-shirt with the words “L.A.P.D. We Treat You Like A King” (referencing and implicitly celebrating the brutal 1991 police beating of Rodney King, a Black man). Coulter told the room that her “heart has been broken over this.”

“There’s folks in this room who I have served in their communities who know my heart and know that for 30 years I have served in black and brown communities with all that I ever have to give, never treating people unfairly or unjustly because of their race,” Coulter read from a piece of paper during the hearing. “Even people I’ve had to arrest, I treated like gentlemen or gentle ladies going through the process.”

But that wasn’t enough for many people in the room, including City Councilperson Cindy Bass, who called for Coulter to “step down immediately” over the photo, which was revealed in an August 30th story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“I do not believe that Acting Commissioner Christine M. Coulter can effectively manage the external relationships necessary to address police and community tensions which is absolutely required of any commissioner,” Bass read from a letter she had sent to Mayor Jim Kenney.

While watching the hearing, I had to ask myself: Why is this even a debate? How does an officer who has been caught wearing racist paraphernalia come to think that an apology suffices? Why is Bass the only councilperson calling for Coulter to resign? If Coulter had instead been wearing a swastika, a more known symbol of hate, would she still be the acting police commissioner a week after such a story had broken?

Kenney’s response to the entire fiasco has proved that he’s willing to give second chances at the expense of a marginalized community. In a statement to Inquirer, Kenney defended Coulter by saying that she made a “bad decision” and that the T-shirt “was abhorrent, wearing it was a mistake, and she took responsibility.” The mayor also suggested that he did not think she should resign for this issue alone after several decades of service.

He pretty much gave a slap on a wrist to a blatant act of racism by our city’s interim top cop. Again, I wonder if the same would have been done if our current mayor were Black.

What white people such as Coulter and Kenney fail to understand is that racism isn’t a “bad decision” that just happens and goes away. Despite Coulter claiming that she wasn’t aware of the context behind the shirt she was wearing, I question how any officer in the early ’90s could not have known. I was born the year Rodney King was brutally attacked. As a child, I grew up hearing about that assault and the riots it caused, and I have been distrustful of the police ever since. Coulter wearing that T-shirt — which, let’s be clear, invites and celebrates attacks on Black bodies — represents another reminder of how institutionally racist law enforcement is, back then and now.

She should not be given a second chance. Calls for her resignation are past due.

Right now, our city is dealing with the burden of 343 officers being internally investigated for racist and bigoted conduct on social media, with 193 having already been found to have violated department policy. Coulter, given her past, should not be leading that charge as interim police commissioner. It would be the pot calling the kettle black, with no Black person in sight to weigh in. It also does not help that she is currently named as one of several defendants in the discrimination lawsuit that led to the resignation of her predecessor.

True accountability looks like Coulter immediately stepping down in order not to belabor the city with any more distractions in its efforts to regulate an already broken police department. As long as she remains in power, complicity in the very racism the city claims to want to address will continue to fester.