Philadelphia’s acting police commissioner, Christine M. Coulter, was photographed at the New Jersey Shore in the 1990s wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “L.A.P.D. We Treat You Like a King,” a slogan printed on shirts in Los Angeles after police officers there were videotaped in the infamous beating of Rodney King in 1991.

In interviews this week, Coulter said she never considered the shirt a reference to the Rodney King incident. “I never even thought of it as anything other than an L.A.P.D. shirt,” she said Friday.

A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement that although Kenney understands that the slogan “could easily be interpreted as a reference to Rodney King ... the mayor is confident that the commissioner’s recollection of her perception is truthful.”

The photograph was shared with The Inquirer this week by a source who requested anonymity.

Coulter, the first woman to lead the department, said she did not think the photo — in which she is standing between two men and smiling — had been altered, but also did not consider it newsworthy.

“I’m very frustrated that someone wanted to take what’s arguably a picture of me and two old friends and turn it into something, you know, ugly or mean-spirited,” Coulter said.

Acting Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter talks with reporters in a conference room at Philadelphia Police Headquarters on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Acting Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter talks with reporters in a conference room at Philadelphia Police Headquarters on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.

Coulter was appointed acting commissioner last week, after Richard Ross abruptly resigned amid an allegation in a lawsuit that he had retaliated against a woman with whom he once had an affair.

The police union has said it supports Coulter’s candidacy for the top job. Kenney’s office this week called her an “experienced, thoughtful commander” who was being considered as his office conducts a search for Ross’ replacement.

Coulter said she believed the photo was taken at a hotel in Wildwood Crest around 1994, during a gathering of officers who worked in the 25th District. She declined to identify the men in the photo. The Inquirer has been unable to identify them and is publishing a cropped version showing only Coulter.

At the time the photo was taken, Coulter said, she played soccer for a team affiliated with the department that often competed with other police departments’ teams from across the country. After games, she said, players often traded T-shirts, and she received clothes with logos representing many departments.

Coulter said that’s likely how she would have received a shirt bearing the abbreviation for the Los Angeles Police Department, although she was not certain. She said she did not remember ever perceiving the slogan on the shirt as a reference to King, adding that at the time she was a young cop more interested in day-to-day street work than in the “politics of policing,” and would have been unlikely to connect the slogan to an episode in another city.

“It may have meant something to people in L.A.,” she said, later adding: “I can’t remember giving it a thought. But I certainly can’t say I thought it meant Rodney King."

According to news accounts, shirts bearing that slogan were printed in the wake of King’s beating. A 1998 Los Angeles Times story said that after the episode, “vendors sold another T-shirt that infuriated many police. ‘LAPD,’ it read, ‘we treat you like a King.’”

Coulter said that the aftermath of King’s beating “was a very, very dark period for policing” that set back police-community relations all over the country, and that she remembered experiencing unrest in Philadelphia after officers involved in the incident were acquitted at trial.

In Philadelphia this summer, the Police Department has been dealing with fallout from a scandal in which hundreds of its officers were accused of posting racist, insensitive, or otherwise offensive material on Facebook.

Coulter said the Facebook episode is different from the photo of her shirt — which does not explicitly reference Rodney King — because “what I saw on Facebook was clearly an intentional act of information that they posted and typed.”

“There’s no way you can misinterpret ‘Death to Islam,’” Coulter added, referring to one of the posts cataloged on the database of offensive Facebook comments.

Coulter said this week that she wants to keep the job of top cop after Kenney’s search is complete, and that “I am going to sit in this seat as if it’s going to be the job that I’m going to have in the future.”

Kenney’s office has not given a time frame for when he might select the next commissioner.

Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.