The low down on Philly cops

This will end my trilogy about police, with local reporting I have done on the Philadelphia Police Department, which has been investigated many times and been under different consent decrees.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey requested report. (Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer)

In 2015, after a Department of Justice study requested by Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, we learned Philly cops may be ill-trained and trigger-happy, but at least they are not racist.

Are you relieved? Are you surprised? This was Eric Holder’s DOJ, not William Barr’s.

That was a key finding in the long-awaited Department of Justice study of Philadelphia’s Finest. The report presented findings that were sometimes surprising.

Between 2007 and 2014, Philadelphia cops shot at 394 people, an average of almost one a week, the report says. 59 of them, or 15%, were unarmed. In about half those cases, cops said they believed the suspect was reaching for a weapon, in others the suspect was fighting with police. 

“Unarmed” doesn’t mean not dangerous, but officers are supposed to shoot only to protect themselves or someone else from imminent death or serious bodily injury.

African-Americans were 80 percent of the total shooting victims, but the unarmed suspects were more likely to be white

In a majority of cases, unarmed black suspects were shot by black officers.

The facts do not support any “open season on blacks,” so can we give that one a rest?

Are there racist cops? Sure, but the report doesn’t present them as a major issue. A bigger problem than being shot at by cops — that happens to few of us — is being treated rudely. Lots more of us get that.

The “command voice,” the growled order to comply without explanation, the casual impertinence, obscenities, manhandling, followed by release without apology, is too common. Perhaps “courtesy” should be added to the PPD motto “Honor, Integrity, Service.” Public servants ought to act like it.

The report made a staggering 91 recommendations. Mayor Michael Nutter created a 15-member oversight board to enact the recommendations. Changing police culture is hard.

In Philadelphia, the report said, there are far more police shootings than in New York City, which has  40,000 police, contrasted to Philly’s 6,500-person force.

That is stunning. Clearly, better training and supervision is required here.

Next issue: our criminal cops.

Over the past several decades, there have been dozens of cops charged with crimes ranging from shoplifting to drug dealing to sexual assault to murder. This has contributed to a chasm between cops and community, which benefits neither.

Cops complain about the “no-snitch” street culture, but they have a culture just as insidious —the Blue Code of Silence.

Yesterday I proposed PPD developing an Honor Code, such as used in our military academies, to undermine the Blue Code.

I referenced heroic NYPD cop Frank Serpico, whose experiences were turned into a 1973 movie starring Al Pacino. The Brooklyn-born Serpico was the first New York cop to testify about widespread corruption in his department. He pointed his finger at his brother officers.

After that, on a drug raid, he was shot in the face and his brother officers, who probably steered him into an ambush, neither backed him up nor called for an ambulance. Serpico had broken the code and almost died.

This is not a great selling point for imposing an Honor Code. As I have noted, turning in bad cops can be unhealthy for good cops, but we ask police to be brave.

Straight-arrow cops tired of having their reputations blackened by the thugs need to step up. 

“From all the cops I hear from trying to report,” says Serpico, “no matter how high they go, they are told, ‘Listen, we can’t expose this because it will undermine the public’s confidence in police.’ They don’t understand that confidence is already undermined.” There is a “quagmire of putrid flesh in police departments across the country,” he says. “Some are mentally unstable, they are bullies.”

The lid wasn’t blown off the garbage pail until Serpico went to The New York Times, which put his story on Page 1.

Given the grief, why did he do it and why should any other cop do it, I ask him.

“Do you want to live with this, work with this kind of trash? It’s an honorable profession,” says Serpico. “You keep your honor, your dignity. You can face your kids, your community and your country and you save your honor.”

Right now, the good cops fear the bad cops instead of the other way around.

Every department needs a Serpico, more than one.

21 thoughts on “The low down on Philly cops”

  1. Stu

    Your Serpico reference is why I don’t think the blue line of silence will be broken

    The Brooklyn-born Serpico was the first New York cop to testify about widespread corruption in his department. He pointed his finger at his brother officers.

    After that, on a drug raid, he was shot in the face and his brother officers, who probably steered him into an ambush, neither backed him up nor called for an ambulance. Serpico had broken the code and almost died.

    This is not a great selling point for imposing an Honor Code. As I have noted, turning in bad cops can be unhealthy for good cops, but we ask police to be brave.

    Someday a cop will put out an assist officer call and he wants to be assured his fellow officers will rush to his aid. What happened to Serpico?

  2. I knew this. Many of us did, who follow FBI crime stats.

    Now you know why we say the far Left just wants to provoke a race war for their own interests.

    Many good points, Stu. I know that I’m a bit ( HA! ) thick headed. It seems that no one agrees with me. Improvement has to come from the top down ! Same as in the private world. It’s more common, therefore, more hidden than you think. If the brass will back the patrolman, things will change. Keep city Hall out of the police force ! Why “snitch” and get punished? Why can’t the commissioner and her staff do the “honorable” thing ?
    You asked Serpico, why. I say to people. Everyday, you have to get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror. Do you like what you see ? At the end of the day, same face, same mirror – or is it ? Do you like what you see ? Did you intentionally hurt someone ? Did you wrong some one ? Will my family be proud of me for my actions today ? Am I a good role model for my children and grand children ?
    Personally, I try to do good. Sometimes I make mistakes both professionally and privately. I’m pretty sure that my legacy will reflect that I was a dependable rock. You wanted me for a friend and ally. You sure didn’t want me against you. My family and my friends will have a good time when they celebrate my passing. Lots of laughter and tears of joy. The words “Honor and integrity” will be said often.

  4. Although I have consistently heard that Philadelphia is predominantly black, in fact it is about 47% black and 42% white, that (to me) is pretty much an even split. But the murder percentages are out of whack relative to the population: in 2016 (the last full police report I could find), 78% of murder victims were black and 21% white. Now, either white people are on a rampage and killing blacks just for the hell of it, or blacks are committing more crime and getting killed for their efforts. But that’s not so either. In fact, most killings were black-on-black, and were caused by (of all things!) arguments– not by someone getting caught stealing, or during a B&E, or a mugging, or whatever. Nope. Person A says something to Person B (or even Persons C and D), and tempers flare and out come the guns. What does all this have to do with getting the cops under control? Beats the hell out of me. All I can conclude is the problem is cops IN PART and a lot of other factors that deal with sociology. It’s way above my pay grade. But I like cops and respect cops. Some are a**holes, but a lot of people I have met in civilian life also fit that description.

  5. Once again, excellent. Unfortunately people are much less interested in facts than they are in their own point of view. Yes, I’m guilty of that on occasion. Generally people vote what they feel, not what they know. We are in no danger of running out of dopey cops doing dopey things to be filmed and used by activists to tar the entire department with the same brush used to tar the corrupt. It still beats hanging wallboard for a living.

  6. Well said, Vincent! Let’s get guns off the streets! Crazy that some men can’t control their tempers. I say, men, because very few murders are committed by women…except in self-defense and rarely with guns.

    1. Another interesting insight (totally unrelated to the cops angle) is that women extremely rarely use a gun to take their own life. Something to do with not wanting to be disfigured in death.

  7. Once again Stu, IMHO, spot on with the analysis! Thanks for a compelling read full of facts, relevant background and perspective. Thanks for keeping it real!

  8. Stu,
    Thank you for and interesting and educational few days. And the contributors. Always learning here! I never had the desire to be a cop, like you have said you wanted to maybe be a fireman. For me it was the bullets!
    Seems we both chose what has worked out the best.

  9. Stu, thank you for an honest piece of writing that has facts and figures to back it up! I am a retired officer who worked 26 years on the PPD. Yes there is a problem with knowing that something’s not right with how an officer might handle things but it’s no where near as bad as the cop haters make it out to be. 98.5 % of the police I worked with felt like I did, Treat the people you have to deal with just like you would expect you or your family to be treated and the only time that would change is in the way I was treated by the person I was dealing with at the time. In those years I can count on two hands when a situation became volatile. The aggressor was talked down in 90 % of the cases. The thing is that there was more respect for authority years ago. If I got a call about a disorderly crowd I would approach on a human level and just say, guys, you got to move on and they would. That don’t happen today! Today you are going to be challenged because there is no respect for themselves, their families and certainly not the police.

    1. HAPPY FRIDAY !!!
      First: thank you for your service.
      Second: In this blog, you are the best source of info on PPD. In your time with the force, you have seen change, as
      only as you can describe to a civilian. If you would, please share what you can.
      I have second hand knowledge that dates back generations to present. Cops and Troopers on both side of the river, with one or two conservation officers thrown in. Nothing compared to you living it and fighting the fight.

  10. Cynicism about law and order is nothing new. To wit…

    “Law and order are everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy.” — Herbert Marcuse

    “Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” — Honore de Balzac

  11. In most of these cases, the “system” is run by blacks, mayor, chief of police, DA, City Council, yet the claim of systemic racism.

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