Philadelphia police shedding brutality image

Philadelphia, with the impetus of a US Justice Department suit and under the leadership of a new mayor, has taken strong steps to reform its police department.

These steps will go a long way toward preventing racial violence of the Miami type in the "City of Brotherly Love," minority group spokesmen acknowledge.

But nearly everyone here, even top police officials, agrees that Philadelphia has much further to go before its police department is completely rid of the taint of brutality it was charged with by the US Justice Department in an unprecedented lawsuit last summer.

The suit, resulting from a nine-month investigation, was thrown out of court last December by a federal judge here on grounds that there was no statute on the books which would permit such an action against an entire police department. But the US attorney in Philadephia took the case to the federal court of appeals here even though his office has been "favorably impressed" with some of the changes in the police department in recent months. the reason: He feared the changes may well not go far enough.

Some of the changes:

* Shortly after he became mayor in January, William Green III appointed Morton Solomon, a 30-year police department veteran as well as its frequent critic, as commissioner. And, for the first time, a black -- who also had come up through the ranks -- was appointed to one of the two deputy commissioner posts.

Leaders of the Philadelphia black community, nearly 50 percent of the population, are happy with both appointments as well as with the forced retirement of officers who allegedly had condoned unnecessary violence.

However, black leaders say many more minority policemen need to be hired than the current 18 percent of the force.

* Mayor Green issued an executive order April 30, saying that an officer could fir his revolver at a person suspected of committing a violent felony, such as armed robbery, only after all other means of subduing him had been exhausted.

But "not an awful lot has been changed" by this order, declares Anthony E. Jackson, an attorney specializing in police matters with the independent, nonprofit Philadelphia Public Interest Law Center. While agreeing that the order is a positive step, he finds still two faults: (1) It will be easy for some officers to say they had exhausted "all other means," and (2) an executive order is not nearly as strong as an ordinance, under which lawsuits could be filed for violations.

* Another executive order was issued June 30, which, for the first time, permits citizens to lodge formal complaints against police officers and be assured these complaints will be heard on their merits and acted upon, if neccessary, with alacrity.

But civil rights activists are unhappy with this order too because, again, it does not carry the same force of law as an ordinance and can be changed at the pleasure of the mayor alone. Morever, Mr. Jackson and others are unhappy with the fact that only summaries of the complaint proceedings -- instead of the entire record -- will be made available to the press and public for use in possible legal action.

In what minority groups feel is the first major test of how sincere the Green administration is in reforming the police department, an officer was fired recently for shooting and killing an uanrmed man in his 90s.

Mr. Jackson, for one, feels that no diciplinary action would have been taken had the previous administration still be in office. It is these kinds of decisions, he adds, that will signal to minority community that the department is changing for the better.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.