Philly gets a question mark at a bad time

Retired auto worker Johnny Gossett can barely control his rage as he thinks about how the Philadelphia police kicked and beat a fellow African-American while a TV camera recorded it.

Granted, the man, Thomas Jones, was being chased for allegedly hijacking a car, perhaps wounding a police officer (no gun has been found yet), and then trying to escape in a police cruiser.

But as he sits stoopside in predominately black North Philadelphia, Mr. Gossett wonders, "What state of mind are the police in so that a black man can't even surrender?"

Over the next several weeks, it's a question the Philadelphia Police Department and the Department of Justice hope to answer as they investigate the police version of a bench-clearing brawl. The charges against Mr. Jones are serious, but his beating reminded many of the whipping that the Los Angeles police gave Rodney King. And the incident is serving to kick up long-standing racial tensions in the City of Brotherly Love and raise renewed questions among residents about whether the police have been able to move past their troubled past.

"There's a quiet kind of rage just beneath the surface," says Jerome Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.

Almost everyone agrees that it's incumbent on the city not to whitewash the investigation. "We're seething but we're not ready to tear up the city as long as the process is moving," says Mr. Mondesire, who plans to file a civil suit against the city.

The incident couldn't have come at a worse time. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and the Republican convention, with thousands of reporters to cover it, are about to invade the city. Joining them for the festivities will be scores of antibusiness demonstrators - many of them fresh from protests at the International Monetary Fund in Washington and the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Protesters are now adding the Philadelphia police to their placards.

Ironically, this incident comes at a time when the Philadelphia police seem to be trying to clean up their reputation for cracking heads. Police commissioner John Timoney, a well-respected cop from New York, had reached out to minority communities before the incident. So far, Mr. Timoney has kept the local black clergy and political leaders informed about the investigation.

Although Timoney gets high marks for communication, there is a limit to what he can do, says Jim Fyfe, a police expert at Temple University School of Law. "His authority is limited. He has handcuffs on his appointments, he frequently loses discipline cases, and the police union still has the influence of former Mayor and Police Chief Frank Rizzo."

Philly's tough past

It was under Mr. Rizzo that Philadelphia police developed their reputation. As chief, he once quipped that what police needed was more shotguns.

He went out and bought them, "then said the Philadelphia police were well equipped enough to invade Cuba - and win," says Fyfe.

In 1980, the abuses of the Philadelphia police attracted the attention of the Justice Department, which tried to get authority to monitor the police. The Justice Department lost that case, but in 1994, Congress changed the law to give the federal government standing to force changes in local police departments.

Today, the government is monitoring police departments in New York, Cleveland, Washington, and Los Angeles. It has reached agreements for changes in Pittsburgh and in the New Jersey State Police.

Despite these efforts, police watchdogs are not happy. "We've been disappointed by the lack of real vigor by the Department of Justice following up incidents in Oakland and San Francisco, Chicago, and L.A." says Van Jones, national executive director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in San Francisco. "There have been allegations in numerous cities."

Mr. Jones believes the problem lies in the increase in the number of officers on the street. "We have 100,000 more rookies on the street but no increase for accountability or oversight," he says.

The idea of prosecuting police is relatively recent, says Roger Lane, a professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "When it has happened, it's the result of increasing political power by black voters because in the majority of cases, the majority of the victims have been black," he says. "What makes the Philadelphia situation interesting is that the mayor is African-American."

Race relations in Philadelphia have always been rocky, says Judith Goode, a professor of urban anthropology at Temple University here. "It's a very racially segregated city -it's the kind of place where you can really see the division between the rich and the poor," she says.

Streets of North Philadelphia

One of the poor areas is North Philadelphia, where Jones lived before his arrest. Although there is some new building going on, it still has many vacant lots and tumble-down buildings. Many of the streets are covered with refuse. There are few stores. Many of the cars are old and banged up.

On Hollywood Street, where Jones lived with his mother, the neighborhood is in better condition.

One of Jones's neighbors, Delores Wilson, remembers him as well mannered. "It was always Ms. this and Ms. that," she says. "You wouldn't think he was bad -and even if he did something wrong, he should have been treated like a human being." As she walks up the street, she warns, "If they cover this thing up, it's going to get worse - there are already people shooting back at the cops."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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