Mayoral Update with the Spirit Newspaper – The Candidates on Police-Community Relations

Photo by Kenneth Lipp

Photo by Kenneth Lipp

Editors’ note: this article first appeared in the Spirit Newspapers on March 11, 2015. The text here differs slightly from the print and Spirit online editions. No factual content is altered. This is the fifth in our series of election updates with the River Ward’s community paper.

By the Declaration

This week we’ll take a break from our featured candidate series to bring you issue-focused coverage – how do the mayoral wannabes stand on public safety and police-community relations? Most of the press coverage has looked at stances on education and the retention of millennials. More than 50% of millennials in Philadelphia, and in each of the River Wards individually, are young men and women of color, and this community has the least access to educational resources and the most interaction with the criminal justice system of any demographic. The public has been pushing the candidates to address current policing issues during campaign events.

None of the four mayoral candidates who appeared at a forum at Arch Street United Methodist Church on Saturday was willing to say he would, if elected, issue an Executive Order banning “stop-and-frisk” immediately upon taking office, as the forum’s organizers requested. The Pennsylvania Working Families Candidates Forum, which heard from City Council hopefuls Saturday morning before giving the stage after lunch to Nelson Diaz, Anthony Williams, Doug Oliver, and Jim Kenney, focused on patently progressive topics like workforce diversity, labor relations, poverty and education.

The afternoon session with the mayoral field featured a heated discussion on public safety, especially concerning police treatment of minorities. Candidates addressed a loudly responsive crowd, fired up by the passionate deuteronomy of one Reverend Holston, who sonorously condemned racist policing practices, especially stop-and-frisk, at a volume that rose with the assent of the rapt audience. The forum moderator presented 4 demands – the creation of an independent review board that “the Philadelphia Police cannot stymie,” the already mentioned executive order ending stop-and-frisk, reform and expansion of re-entry programs for incarcerated persons, and the expansion of non-custodial incarceration options for low-level offenders (like work-release and house arrest).

We examine the potential influence of each candidate’s election on “21st Century Policing,” and how an administration under each might affect the chasm in relations between police and persons of color in particular, through the lens of Saturday’s forum. This leaves three players missing – Rev. Keith Goodman (who dropped out of the race on Tuesday after deciding to devote his attention to his congregation rather than political office by not filing his nomination petition by the deadline), Milton Street, and Lynne Abraham. While we would not wish to dismiss Mr. Street’s insights into policing policy,the four candidates in attendance stand the best chance of putting forth a program of substantial reform and getting elected to implement it.

As for Lynne Abraham, her position might have been assumed to be heavy on “law and order,” given her record as a prosecutor and most of her public statements, and the same assumption can probably still be made despite her recent total reversal on marijuana decriminalization. Even if the change of heart is truly an earnest one, achieved through new information brought to her after she gave absurdly outdated and inaccurate answers on the subject in a PhillyMag interview, we can for our purposes easily dismiss someone whose position can be so punctuated in the wrong direction because they failed to investigate an issue.

Naturally we can’t just look at what the candidates said Saturday or during this campaign to see where they stand – we need to examine their past, their current platforms, and we examine who they know (especially those people they know and that give them money).

Nelson Diaz might have been a cinch to investigate – he served on multiple task forces during the 1980’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has at least 8 boxes of records documenting Diaz’s time on the Mayor’s Task Force on Minority Employment in the Police Department, the Mayor’s Task Force on Police Discipline, the Police Advisory Board, and the Police Corruption Task Force. Unfortunately, the Spirit was unable to review these records as they “are closed to researchers,” and will be until 2051 at the earliest, by which time Diaz would probably be out of office if elected.

Senator Williams agreed that stop-and-frisk should be ended, largely because it was ineffective. But police misconduct was for Williams a footnote, and he spent more time warning the crowd and the candidates against “denigrating” officers, “…because we love our police officers,” said Williams.

The PA State Senator was one of the “Gang of Five,” state legislators in the 90’s who were the force behind a police reform effort during Mayor Ed Rendell’s administration, which he boasts of on his website as experience “holding Philadelphia law enforcement leadership accountable.” The Gang’s audit resulted in the firing of the police commissioner, after an initially combative Rendell embraced the legislators’ findings, and led to the institution of measures patterned after the NYPD to “embrace the revolution in policing that has slashed crime rates in New York, Boston and some other cities.” Williams’ Gang’s plan featured a scheme to save jail space by building tent cities to incarcerate low-level offenders during warm-weather months (think like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona, but on a seasonal basis because this is Philly not the desert).

Williams’ reluctance to criticize the Philly PD was likely a result of his political sensitivity, given the recent tragic killing of an officer during a robbery. Those most likely to be offended are the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 members and especially its president John McNesby, whose hand never rises above his hip-holster when he shoots his mouth off at whatever public figures unfortunate enough to have their less-than-valorizing comments about law enforcement come to his attention.

This will be the first year the FOP 5’s Political Action Committee, COPPAC, will be able to contribute to candidates for city office. The City Charter still forbade financial funding of campaigns even after the Citizens United ruling made rampant “dark money” a dominant feature of elections nationwide, until a ruling by a federal court in August of last year overturned that prohibition. Now COPPAC, with serious resources and political connections behind it, is free to develop a mutually-beneficial relationship with candidates, the kind that makes the latter’s relationship with people who have less money and fewer powerful friends inconvenient and easier to neglect. The FOP has long stood in the way of any real disciplinary reform within the department and the mayor that brings real accountability to the PPD will have to be willing to cross its union, and not just in the way that makes Mr. McNesby write a strongly worded letter.

Nelson Diaz and Anthony Williams are both still touting programs of “broken-windows policing,” which Diaz usually refers to as community-oriented policing, that includes strict enforcement of minor crimes as a means of preventing more serious and violent offenses, and as we mentioned is the policing theory that led to the proliferation of “stop-and-frisk” in cities like New York and Philadelphia. Both candidates can and did both speak from their own lives of negative experience with police as persons of color, but both appear bound to perpetuate the divorce between politicians and the actual practice of law enforcement and thus the rift between police officers and many of the people they protect.

Doug Oliver said he might issue an Executive Order, but felt that it would do little good because the treatment of minorities was a result of “a spirit of disrespect that would just manifest itself somewhere else.” Oliver’s website actually includes a story from his childhood, when he says he and a group of friends were searched without cause by Philly cops while they were playing basketball. Oliver also denounced “stop-and-frisk,” but it should be noted that among four fundamental commitments listed on his webpage is ensuring “a common understanding among the police that small crime should be treated like it is the precursor to big crime,” which is the fundamental tenet of “broken-windows policing.”

Jim Kenney said most of the right things – he’s quite savvy discussing the topic of stop-and-frisk, particularly as it relates to the racial disparity in marijuana arrests. He said he first learned of the imbalance in arrests of African-Americans when he sponsored a bill last year that became Philly’s pot decriminalization law, “something I never thought I would get done,” said Mr. Kenney, “and has nothing to do with marijuana. It’s about the arrest record.”

The former Councilman added little that was new to his already on-the-record positions. He seemed less paranoid about offending the FOP at a sensitive moment, saying that “When I was a kid, my parents always told me that if needed help I should find a police officer.” Present-day parents are as likely to tell their kids to “avoid a police officer,” he said.

“In response to the independent review board: yes. Stop-and-frisk: gone,” Kenney followed-up. Perhaps more telling than his words last Saturday was Kenney’s presence Monday at the Center for Returning Citizens, where he spent an hour answering questions from formerly incarcerated persons about plans for an enhanced program of aiding people back to civilian life from jail or prison.

As for a civilian oversight board, such a thing already exists, called the Police Advisory Commission, and does as absolutely an effective job as is possible under the constraints of the document that created it. That document is an Executive Order issued by Ed Rendell in 1994. It was created under the Managing Director’s office, and though its chief operator and spokesman Kelvyn Anderson is supremely competent as well as diligent, its status as a non-chartered entity that is subject to the Managing Director’s budgetary whims leaves it sadly toothless watchdog. The creation of a truly independent body is under consideration now within City Council, and will mean changing the City Charter in a vote during the 2015 general election. The mayor cannot change the Charter, but he can use the prestige of his office to advocate for the measure.

The fact is that while no candidate but Williams seemed concerned about offending the FOP and its friends, not a single occupant of the chancel at Arch Street tackled the massive obstruction that is the local police union, as it currently operates. Most complaints against officers are not sustained, few that are sustained result in any real disciplinary action, and even when cops lose their jobs for outrageous abuses, they as often as not are restored through FOP-constructed arbitration, with back pay.

This limitation on executive power prevents the mayor and commissioner from ridding the force of individual problem officers, whose transgressions can at times be shocking but do not independently speak to the problem, which is that only the most egregious offenses are ever brought to a courtroom, and even those which are prosecuted are not remotely a sure thing without sufficient public attention compelling politicians to oversee the process.

It’s too soon to tell who will get the lion’s share of the COPPAC war chest, and who McNesby will grace with his endorsement, but the March 30th filing deadline for campaign finance reports promises more answers. And no singe candidate has yet to stand out as one who will help both the many good cops of Philadelphia and the people they protect rid themselves of the status quo that keeps bad cops on our streets with guns. It won’t be enough to admit publicly to a few bad seeds and promise to remove them. It will require a mayor who tirelessly wields his statutory power, and his bully-pulpit, to bring about the painful systemic changes necessary to expose abusive individuals and practices at all levels of command, and strip them of bureaucratic impunity.

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About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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