Philly Politicians Are Condemning Derek Chauvin. Why Are They Silent on Local Police Brutality?

As our leaders weigh in on the Minneapolis court case, too little has been said about new charges of police abuse here last summer.

As the Derek Chauvin case in Minnesota dominates the news, new charges of police brutality have been filed in Philadelphia. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto)

In the wake of the emotional testimony at the start of the Derek Chauvin trial, some of Philadelphia’s most influential and powerful politicians made sure to denounce what they heard.

Chauvin, of course, is the former Minneapolis cop facing murder and manslaughter charges for killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, on May 25th, 2020. The trial has so far revealed that the former officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds — even longer than the originally cited eight minutes and 46 seconds that prompted massive racial uprisings, Black Lives Matter protests, and long-lasting public distrust of the police.

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson implored, “All this for a $20 bill?” — a reference to the counterfeit money Floyd used that prompted the 911 call — while Councilmember Isaiah Thomas tweeted, ponderously, “8 minutes and 46 seconds.” Both State Rep Malcolm Kenyatta and State Senator Sharif Street declared, “George Floyd should be alive today,” with the latter adding that “his death was preventable, [his] death was not his fault.”

While it was hard to ignore all the posts made by City Councilmembers and state reps about Floyd’s killing, they made no mention of our most recent horror here at home.

James Smith, a 30-year Philadelphia police department vet, was suspended and arrested last Thursday because while off-duty last August, he allegedly beat a 27-year-old man who is on the autism spectrum. According to police, Smith was accompanied by his brother, Patrick Smith, a former detective, who is accused of helping him chase down the man after stopping him “without cause.” The Smith brothers allegedly lied to the man about their identity, claiming to be members of a “town watch,” before brutally assaulting him. Both brothers are now facing misdemeanor charges for simple assault, conspiracy, and recklessly endangering another person.

“Obviously, it’s very disturbing that anyone, in this case two fairly high-ranking police personnel, believes it’s okay to act as vigilantes, to chase down someone, to attack them and then repeatedly give false information,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said at a press conference.

It’s yet another high-profile failure for our police force. Yet progress will remain impossible as long as our mayor and the local elite continue to defend the police commissioner and/or turn a blind eye to the misconduct of officers. The racial uprisings of 2020 revealed that abuses by the police are more frequent than we’d like to believe. A few short months after we were marching for justice on behalf of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, this Philadelphia man was terrorized by cops from the same police department that had to be told by City Council to stop tear-gassing innocent civilians, and that was eventually singled out by the United Nations as an example of how not to police. These new charges are beyond shameful.

All of which is why the outpouring of passionate reactions to the Derek Chauvin trial by some elected officials in our own backyard feels like cognitive dissonance.

How can those in power speak on injustice in Minneapolis without equal outrage for what’s happened in Philly ? It’s not that these elected officials haven’t ever spoken on police misconduct, but it says something that at the confluence of the Chauvin trial and World Autism Awareness Month (yep, it’s April), very few in the political class are tying it all together. It doesn’t help that Mayor Jim Kenney has yet to speak on the recent news about the victim but made sure to let the city know that police are currently working on a plan to address potential unrest in the event Chauvin is found not guilty. I find it rather convenient that the Mayor has emphasized the plan (which would have been useful last summer) while keeping quiet about this recent alleged breach of public trust. It’s almost as if our leaders want us to focus on Chauvin’s trial rather than the current crisis here. It’s imperative we don’t let that happen.

We need more leaders like Councilmember Derek Green, who pulled no punches in his condemnation of the officers charged in the autism incident. “As an outspoken advocate for the disability community and, most importantly, the father of a young man on the autism spectrum, I stand up for people like this 27-year-old victim and others who struggle to or are unable to speak for themselves and say that this behavior will not be tolerated by any law enforcement official, regardless of rank,” Green said in response to the alleged police abuse. “We continue to set ourselves back with every instance of police brutality, every arrest that occurs by way of racial profiling or stereotyping, and the mistreatment by police of neurodiverse individuals due to lack of due diligence [and] effective training” or “just blatant disregard for humanity.” He concluded, “We must be better and do better than this, here at home and in every other American city.”

He’s right. If there is one thing that the racial uprisings have taught us, it’s that putting a Band-Aid on a deep cut does nothing. Philadelphia is bleeding, and history will continue to repeat until we stop acting like our city doesn’t have its own police problems to confront.