GIVEN the controversy surrounding the O.J. Simpson defense theory that racist police planted the evidence against their client, a scandal in Philadelphia merits attention. There a band of at least five rogue officers has terrorized a North Philadelphia neighborhood, beating, robbing, and planting phony evidence on both suspected criminals and completely innocent citizens.
In one case, some of the officers lied to obtain a search warrant, illegally searched a woman's home, and planted drugs in a bedroom. She was convicted of selling crack cocaine and spent three years in prison.
Her conviction and almost 50 other drug cases now have been overturned by the courts and the district attorney's office. At least 1,400 other cases may come under review, including several murder convictions. A dozen people have been freed from prison or parole, and that may be just the beginning. Five officers have pleaded guilty in federal court.
The case is similar to scandals brewing in the New York City police department and elsewhere. The Los Angeles police, still reeling from the Rodney King affair, now must deal with former detective Mark Fuhrman's outrageous remarks on tape recordings made during discussions with a screenwriter concerning police procedures and attitudes. In the recordings, Mr. Fuhrman is heard using racial epithets, belittling women and minority officers (including Judge Lance Ito's wife), and bragging about beating and abusing suspects, mostly black.
Who can blame the Simpson jury if it sees merit in the defense theory of racist police framing the black defendant?
The public and the police deserve better. Trust between the two is an essential element of our justice system. The overwhelming majority of cops are honest, hard-working public servants doing a difficult and dangerous job.
Most of this abuse takes place in minority communities that are themselves the primary victims of the criminals the police are fighting. Most residents of these neighborhoods are also honest, and should be the cops' No. 1 allies, not their enemies and victims.
Among other things, such behavior once again calls into question the use of the death penalty. If renegade police officers can frame innocents for murder - and this has happened - how can the state know it is executing the real perpetrator of a crime?
Several steps are needed to remedy the situation:
r Police training must include more emphasis on the Constitution and the rights of suspects. Police academies must work to break down, not reinforce, the us-versus-them mentality that prevails in too many big-city forces. White cops must be helped to understand that blacks and Hispanics are not automatically potential suspects.
r City and police officials must ensure that adequate counseling and mental-health services are available to officers and to their families to help them cope with the stress and strain of their work.
r The message from top city and police officials must be crystal clear: Corruption and wrongdoing will not be tolerated. Action against officers found guilty (after due process) of either should be swift and sure. Police unions should back, rather than hinder, internal-affairs investigations, since the wrongdoers are besmirching the reputation of the unions' other members. New York police commissioner William Bratton is setting a good example as he tackles the corruption long rampant in that city's police department.
Ultimately, however, a police department mirrors the morals and mores of the community at large. Narcotics abuse, violence, bribery, and racism are moral and social issues as much as they are law-enforcement issues. Cops can't solve them alone and shouldn't be expected to. Public institutions - government, schools, churches, and charities - must help.
Ultimately, a police department mirrors the morals of the community at large.