No Matter Who's Behind the Badge, Distrust of `Cop Culture' Persists Despite Integration and Reforms

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ITS color has changed - but distrust of the Philadelphia Police Department hasn't been eliminated.

For the last five years, the department has been headed by two black police commissioners, minorities now hold many senior command posts, and minorities now make up 25 percent of the force.

But reaction to two recent shootings by police and a battle last year over establishing a civilian board to review police-brutality complaints has shown that public distrust of the force, especially by minorities, is still strong.

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``They've made great strides since the '70s and are still trying to improve, but integrating the police force is not the issue [now],'' said Kevin Vaughan, executive director of the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission. ``Changing police culture is.''

One officer, who chose not to give his name, agreed, saying it has always been clear on the street that simply integrating the force would not necessarily create more trust in police.

``It doesn't matter whether you're black, brown, yellow, red, white, or purple,'' the officer, an 18-year veteran, said, ``once you put on the uniform, [people] see you as blue.''

Last year, a majority of City Council members and several minority groups supported the establishment of a civilian review board to review police-brutality complaints and police policies, but Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell and Police Commissioner Richard Neal opposed the move.

A compromise board proposed by Mayor Rendell has been named, but critics complain that the new board has no power. Two recent shootings have renewed complaints of excessive force against minorities.

The 1993 shooting of a working mother of three was heavily criticized by the Latino community. Santa Colon was killed by a stray bullet as she tried to break up a shoving match between her son and a youth. Police arrived at the scene and fired three shots. The armed youth was wounded, and Colon was killed.

The 1992 shooting of Charles Matthews sparked protests from the African-American community. Matthews was intoxicated and refused to put down a pistol that was later found to be unloaded. Police opened fire and Mathews was hit by 23 bullets from eight officers. Eleven of them were fired into his back.

The way to increase public trust in the force, according to Police Commissioner Neal, is continued implementation of community policing - the philosophy the department adopted in 1986.

Community policing focuses on increasing public interaction with police and reducing crime by assigning officers to smaller, sometimes walking beats. It has been only partially implemented in Philadelphia due to its high cost.

``When you look at the department, the culture has definitely changed,'' Neal said. ``Now we see the community we're policing as partners, we sit down with them and try to problem-solve.''

Several officers involved in community policing praised the new approach. They said covering the same area for an extended period allows police to interact with the community in situations other than arrests or altercations - changing the way police and the community view each other.

City Councilman Michael Nutter, who led the fight for a civilian review board last year, said another key is making it clear what will not be tolerated in the department. Mr. Nutter praised Neal, who has fired more than 32 officers since becoming commissioner in 1992.

``He has no patience with people who might be willing to desecrate their badge,'' Nutter said. ``That's the kind of tone that needs to be set by a commissioner.''

Nutter said the force has made great progress since the '70s when it was headed by police commissioner, and later mayor, Frank Rizzo. During that period, the force was viewed, especially by minorities, as being one of the worst in the country.

``I was a teenager through the Rizzo years,'' Nutter said. ``In general, the police were viewed as a terrifying group of people. In that context, things have definitely improved.''

The turning point for the force, according to some officers, was the 1985 confrontation with a radical African-American group, MOVE.

In the well-publicized incident, police dropped a bomb on the roof of the group's fortified row house after MOVE members refused to surrender. A fire started by the bomb spread from house to house. Eleven people died, and 61 neighboring houses were destroyed.

``If there was one incident, I think that's where you would notice the change,'' said Lt. Stephen Johnson, who heads the department's hate-crimes unit. ``It became very clear that we were miles apart from the people we were supposed to be serving.''

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