The Department of Justice has released a 98 page report on a study of police abuse by the Philadelphia police. In a previous article, we demonstrated some of the abuses aimed at the community and Black radicals. These articles can only scratch the surface and cannot cover every instance of abuse and scandal on the part of Philly cops. For the purpose of this article, we are going to skip over the most egregious case of police abuse in City history, the sordid tale of PPD attacks on MOVE.
The MOVE bombing and related events will be the subject of a follow-up article. What the Justice Department study shows is how little has changed. The problems of policing in Philadelphia are structural and long-term. They flow from a culture of hostility to oppressed nationalities by a police department that acts like an occupying army. The problem of police repression in Philadelphia is, of course, linked to the broader question of mass incarceration and the racist character of the criminal injustice system under capitalism.
Frank Rizzo and police repression in Philadelphia
Under Frank Rizzo’s leadership, the Philly police exhibited a pattern of violence and hostility towards the Black community – a community that Rizzo, an overt racist, viewed as a threat to the city. Rizzo, the top cop who later rose to the office of Mayor personified the white racist backlash against increasing demands by Black people for equality and fairness. Philly cops were known for what was called the “turf drop,” a practice where Black people were dropped in hostile white neighborhoods. Turf dropping resulted in assaults by white mobs and at least on death. A series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1972 exposed a pattern of lawless violence, police abuse and torture against both suspects and innocent citizens. “…the series crystallized people’s feelings that Rizzo ran a police department that was severely, illegally violent.” (Reporter Jonathan Neumann quoted in Frank Rizzo, The last big man in big city America by S.A Paolantonio)
Incidents of police brutality led to rebellions in both 1963 and 1964. On October 29, 1963, a police officer shot and killed a suspected shoplifter on Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia as he attempted to run away. Community residents started to throw rocks and bricks at responding cops. Community leaders managed to defuse the situation before it go out-of-control. In August of 1964, a police brutality incident during a traffic stop in North Philadelphia sparked a 3 day rebellion. Community residents attacked cops and then began to loot businesses on Columbia Avenue. The next day, the Mayor declared a curfew and flooded the neighborhood with 1800 cops.
“By venting their anger on white police officers and white-owned businesses – and by sparing black-owned businesses – the rioters articulated a demand not for equal treatment but for the exclusion of white wealth and power from their neighborhoods.” Up South, Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia by Matthew J Countryman.
The Columbia Avenue rebellion resulted in two deaths, 339 injuries, including 100 police, and the arrest of 308 people on charges ranging from curfew violations to burglary. The riot exposed the persistence of discrimination and repression faced by Black Philadelphia in spite of gains made during the Civil Rights struggle. After Rizzo: The more things change, the more they stay the same In the 1990’s the 39th district scandal, where cops were exposed for drug dealing, robbing drug dealers and addicts, and framing citizens on bogus charges. Six Philly cops were convicted of crimes flowing from their reign of terror in North Philadelphia. Because of the scandal more than 1400 cases were reviewed and as many as 300 convictions overturned resulting in more than 150 people being released from jail. Then District Attorney Lynn Abraham said, “When the police are indistinguishable from the bad guys, then society has a serious problem.”
The past two decades are a litany of police abuse and misconduct. The police killings of Moises DeJesus and Donta Dawson in the 1990s, police attacks on Mumia supporters and spying on activists ranging from antiwar protesters to infiltration of the Republican National Committee protests in 2000. Many RNC protesters were the victims of mass arrests. Since 2009, the City of Philadelphia has been sued for almost 600 instances of misconduct, including 29 shootings, and paid out more than $40 million in damages to victims. Prosecutions or firings of cops are a rare occurrence.
Open season on Black people
Philadelphia is not alone. There is a police brutality epidemic in the US, with a Black person killed by cops every 28 hours. In the recent period, we have seen the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, among others. In the Philadelphia region, the cases of Brandon Tate Brown and Frank McQueen raise questions about police misconduct. The recent decision of the DA to decline prosecution of the cops who shot and killed Brandon Tate Brown has outraged activists in the Philadelphia Coalition for REAL Justice.
Ten REAL Justice activists were arrested for disrupting a recent “town hall” meeting on police community relations, with the Police Commissioner, Charles Ramsey and DA Seth Williams in attendance, to demand justice for Brandon. In the past, mobilizations around police brutality have been mostly localized and short-lived. The murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and the resulting mobilization — both national and worldwide — marks a change which is, in part, due to the growth of social media. What cops were formerly able to do out-of-sight of the people is now subject to being filmed by witnesses and posting on social networks within a matter of minutes.
This is why the Black Lives Matter has been able to explode onto the scene following the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The frustration flowing from mass incarceration, police violence and the persistence of white supremacy and racism have sparked the birth of a new civil rights movement.
Socialists support every movement against oppression and for the liberation of the oppressed. These movements must fight for reforms under the existing system, but we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with reforms that mask the systemic nature of the problems.
“The fight to preserve basic democratic rights for Black people and for full equality, just as the fight to put an end to white supremacy and systemic racism, can only be won through the methods of class struggle. As such this will require, on the one hand, the creation of an independent Black political organization that fights for self-determination for Black people, and, on the other hand, the creation of a Labor Party based on the trade unions and progressive Latino and Black political organizations. In fact, these two struggles are intertwined.” Ferguson and the Struggle for Black Liberation Today, Socialist Organizer
What the report says (all quotes in this section from Justice Department Report)
“Between 2007 and 2014, there were 394 OISs [officer-involved shootings] in the PPD, with an annual average of 49. The 22nd and 25th police districts of Philadelphia experienced the most OISs in our study period. ” Training, particularly regarding use of force, is poorly done or almost non-existent.
“Our assessment uncovered policy, training, and operational deficiencies in addition to an undercurrent of significant strife between the community and department.” “White suspects were unarmed in 8 of 32 OISs (25 percent). Black suspects were unarmed in 45 of 285 OISs (15.8 percent). Hispanic suspects were unarmed in 5 of 34OISs (14.7 percent). And Asian suspects were unarmed in 1 of 5 OISs (20 percent). Looking more closely at OISs shows that Black suspects in OISs were the most likely to be the subject of a threat perception failure (8.8 percent) and White suspects in OISs were the most likely (18.8 percent) to be involved in a physical altercation resulting in an OIS.”
Police internal investigations of officer involved shootings is done inconsistently and without transparency. This lack of transparency extends to the police failure to “fully accommodate the PAC (Police Advisory Commission) in its role to provide independent civilian oversight of police operations in Philadelphia.”
The Police Advisory Commission has very little real power and is considered by activists and the community to be a fig leaf to provide cover for an entrenched pattern of abuse by Philadelphia police. A few reforms, body cameras or so-called transparency by the PPD is not sufficient to solve the crisis of police violence in Philadelphia. What is need is democratic community control of police through an elected Civilian Review Board that has the power to subpoena testimony, hold independent investigations and fire violent or corrupt cops. Cops who violate the public trust must be prosecuted and jailed, not swept under the rug.