The recent protest outside Philadelphia’s Police headquarters – triggered by yet another instance of police racism – had an emphasis distinctively different from similar demonstrations during past decades against recurring police misconduct in the city that preens as the Birthplace of Democracy in America.
While protestors demanded disciplinary action against the 328 individual officers responsible for social media postings that oozed violent racist and Islamophobic commentary, protesters repeatedly emphasized the need to end the ‘institutional culture’ within the city’s criminal justice system that has enabled bigotry and brutality to persist among police, prosecutors and judges.
A dramatic example of the institutionalized racism in the Plain View revelations is the offending posters include high-ranking Philadelphia Police Department members: one inspector, six captains and eight lieutenants.
“I was not surprised by those Facebook postings. This has been the culture of the Philadelphia Police Department for years,” the Rev. Gregory Holston said at the protest where he recounted a list of brutal, racist policing incidents in Philadelphia dating back to the vicious November 1967 police nightstick assault on black high school students peacefully protesting against wretched conditions inside their public schools.
In August 1950 an editorial in the African-American owned Philadelphia Tribune newspaper castigated City Hall and Police Department officials for ignoring abusive policing that “more often than not” victimized blacks.
The persistence of abusive policing from false arrests to fatal shootings, irrespective of occasional police reform initiatives, evidences that ‘culture’ condemned during that recent protest.
Rev. Holston, executive director of the inter-faith/inter-racial social justice organization POWER, declared “People’s lives are ruined by bad policing” during that protest.
An example of injustice from bad-policing is Hassan Bennett, another speaker at that protest. Bennett spent 13-years in prison for a murder he did not commit due to misconduct by Philadelphia police and prosecutors.
Bennett, acquitted by a jury in May 2019 after his fourth trial, said “everything was taken from me” by that wrongful conviction.
The detective at the center of the injustice Bennett endured is implicated in the cases of a man released in March 2019 after serving ten years of a wrongful life sentence and a 2013 lawsuit settlement where a falsely arrested man received $750,000.
The fact that those responsible for Bennett’s wrongful imprisonment have never faced scrutiny reflects what a 1998 Human Rights Watch report on Philadelphia police brutality termed “an undisturbed culture of impunity” where failures by City officials to hold police accountable produce police who “act like criminals.”
Weeks before that protest, Harold Wilson, a man who spent 16-years on Pennsylvania’s death row for a wrongful conviction, died from medical conditions contracted while in prison. Wilson gained exoneration based largely on innocence evidence ignored by police and prosecutors.
This current social media posting scandal follows the shutdown of the racist Philly police Domelights.com website a decade ago after a lawsuit filed by Philadelphia’s black police organization, the Guardian Civic League.
Six years after the closure of Domelights, the infamous Porngate rocked the state of Pennsylvania. That scandal involved state prosecutors and judges who exchanged racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails over the state’s computer system. Porngate produced the resignations of two Pennsylvania State Supreme Court members for their participation in those email exchanges.
Philadelphia police officials reportedly began investigation into the Plain View findings in February 2019. But those officials did not announce reassignment of ten of the 328 offending officers to desk duty until after recent news coverage of the Plain View findings.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross also announced plans to conduct anti-bias training for all members of the 6,500-member PPD.
Ironically, last year in the wake of the widely criticized Philadelphia police arrest of two black men at a Starbucks restaurant, Ross rejected a recommendation for enhanced anti-bias training made by Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, a civilian entity that monitors the Police Department.
Ross has maintained that internal Philadelphia Police Department mechanisms are adequate to address issues of racism.
However, given the PPD’s history, Ross’ claim is suspect.
The ranking police Inspector cited in the Plain View examination is a member of the department’s Police Board of Inquiry, (PBI) the internal departmental body that determines penalties for misconduct confirmed by Internal Affairs. The PBI is notorious for acquittals and wrist slap sanctions on misconduct complaints filed against police by civilians.
Police Advisory Commission data noted the Board of Inquiry orders ‘Official Reprimands for errant officers over five-times more often than the PBI’s next most utilized penalty: a one-day suspension from work. Police Internal Affairs approved only 11.4 percent of the physical abuse complaints filed by citizens according to data compiled by that Commission.
Evidence of Philadelphia’s above-the-law policing culture condemned at that recent protest and in that 1998 HRW report is evident in Police Commissioner Ross’s own career.
In the early 1990s a Philadelphia grand jury recommended criminal charges against eight police officers that included Ross for a wild 85-shot incident that left one man dead and bullets flying through a crowded community. However, a Philadelphia judge dismissed the grand jury report on his assertion that the grand jury acted as vigilantes and were thus unfair to police.
The Executive Director of the Police Advisory Commission, Hans Menos, said during a radio interview that the racist postings violated Police Department policies. Those postings, Menos added, undermine the ability of officers to perform police duties. Those postings, for example, rendered officers vulnerable to attacks on their credibility during trials where the officers’ are testifying against defendants they arrested.
Solomon Jones, the Philadelphia talk radio host and award-winning journalist who organized that recent protest, called on elected officials to take act against those responsible for racist social media positing and those that aid-&-abet the unaccountable policing culture.
“We need you to do your jobs,” Jones said about elected officials.