Big-City Police Balk At Assault on Airwaves

Philadelphia policeman sues group for using photo to hawk songs like 'Cops for Fertilizer'

SGT. John Whalen found the compact disc last month at a downtown record store. On its back cover was a photo of a wounded Philadelphia policeman slumped on the pavement. Sargeant Whalen recognized the image. It was his.

Whalen posed for the photo 11 years ago, as part of a poster campaign to dramatize the perils of police work. Now, it adorns a punk-rock album by a Michigan group with tracks like ''Cops for Fertilizer.''

Whalen and others on the Philadelphia force are the latest to join a growing social revolt in the United States against violent lyrics and imagery in pop culture - on everything from the airwaves to video games to album covers.

For the men and women in blue, however, the issue is more than a question of values. It is reality.

After two police killings here this month - one allegedly committed by aspiring rappers - Whalen says cop-killer music is having a real-life impact.

At a time when the public is already mistrustful of police, some officers say hateful music is fueling the hostility of criminals.

Cops are growing less inclined to risk their lives policing neighborhoods that need them most.

The result, they say, is that big-city cops in Philadelphia and elsewhere are growing less inclined to risk their lives policing the troubled neighborhoods that need them most.

''I use the young cops as a barometer,'' says Rich Costello, president of Philadelphia's police union. ''Even they're starting to throw their hands up and say, 'Why get out of the car?' It's frightening when you realize that the police have become so beaten down.''

By all accounts, morale in Philadelphia's police department is at a new low. It's reeling from a corruption scandal involving six officers that could lead to the reversal of hundreds of convictions. A federal probe is under way.

In addition, officer Lauretha Vaird was shot to death this month while trying to break up a bank robbery. Two rappers, whose duo was called ''Count the Banks,'' have been charged with her murder.

Officer Vaird's death, and the start of police contract talks, prompted Mr. Costello to file a $50,000 lawsuit charging that Whalen's photo was used by the punk band (whose name contains an expletive), their San Francisco record company, ''Alternative Tentacles,'' and Borders' Books and Music, without permission.

But to Costello and the cops who patrol the city's row-house boroughs, the real issue is not defamation but outrage about the music and concern about its suggestive power. ''I've seen it from both sides,'' says one officer. ''Being a young African-American and coming up listening to these lyrics at a young age, I know that both unconsciously and consciously, you get a message that it's cool to be anti-police, to kill an officer. We have two cops dead in a month. That says it all.''

The Whalen case is the latest example of a growing backlash against violent music, usually directed at ''gangsta rap.'' Those who defend such music say it is a reflection of reality on the street, and that if police did nothing wrong, it would have no market.

Contacted at his home in Lansing, Mich., where he now runs a baseball-card shop, ''Doc'' Corbin Dart, the musician who used Whalen's picture and wrote ''Cops for Fertilizer'' and ''Pigs in a Blanket,'' insists that his album was not meant to advocate killing police, but does not regret the album's blistering tone.

Ever since he was beaten by police in 1985, Mr. Dart says, he has chided them for abusing their power. The songs, he says, reflect ''feelings that come from feeling helpless. When you start to feel helpless, you start to get defensive. When you get defensive, you start to feel mean.''

While he respects Dart's First Amendment rights, Costello says police seem exempt from standards of decency that apply to criticism of other entities. ''Police seem to be the last recognized minority group in America that it's still politically correct to slander, stereotype, and in this case, murder with impunity,'' he says.

On the street, some police say the public and the media do little to combat these negative stereotypes. Although Philadelphia police respond to more than 2 million calls for help every year and make as little as $24,000 a year, Costello says, ''Most people still view the police as a traffic ticket.'' Whenever an officer makes a mistake, he argues, the media pounce. They raised questions, for example, about Officer Vaird's failure to wear a bulletproof vest.

''It's starting to feel like us against [the media], not us against the bad guys,'' says Philadelphia Officer Donna Jaconi. She says the scrutiny has started to dull some officers' ability to make split-second judgments. In order to survive, she says, cops in Philadelphia have been forced to live by the saying: ''I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.''

SGT. William Dicks, fresh from jury trial at City Hall, says that in the courtroom, in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, jurors are apt to view cops as ''conspirators or liars.'' ''Self-motivation is the only spark that keeps us going.''

Yet some cops admit, privately, that some of their peers have decided the only way to avoid controversy is to avoid danger. This kind of response is most frightening, Costello says, because it is immeasurable: There are no statistics for the number of crimes that could have been prevented.

''The damage will only be seen in the long term,'' he says, ''with the ultimate destruction of neighborhoods, 'For Sale' signs, and the quality of life. It'll just hasten what's happening all along the East Coast: a general and pervasive flight to the suburbs.''

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