The walls of the conference room next to acting Philadelphia Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter’s office are largely bare, with a pile of boxes sitting near the door.
“There’s normally a lot more opportunity to get ready,” Coulter said during an interview Monday at Police Headquarters, just days into her unexpected ascension to the role of the city’s top cop.
Coulter, a 30-year veteran of the force, took over last week after her predecessor, Richard Ross, abruptly resigned amid an allegation that he had retaliated against a woman with whom he once had an affair. That came in a federal lawsuit that also claimed the department had a “well-settled custom” of tolerating sexual harassment and discrimination.
In the interview, Coulter — the city’s first female police commissioner — discussed topics ranging from perceptions of the department’s cultural issues to her desire to combat persistent gun violence and her stance on supervised injection sites.
The 57-year-old, a lifelong resident of Philadelphia who recently moved to Winchester Park, an area also known as Holme Circle, made clear that she wants to be more than an interim commissioner, and said that until Mayor Jim Kenney makes his decision, “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 declined to say how long the search for Ross’ replacement might take or who else might be considered. Kenney’s spokesperson Deana Gamble said in an email that Coulter “is an experienced, thoughtful commander. She is among the officials within the department being considered, as are officials outside of it.”
The police union hopes she gets the job. John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said Monday that the officers’ union “without a doubt” supported Coulter’s candidacy. With experience in patrol, investigative, and administrative roles, McNesby said, “she checks all the boxes.”
Here are four takeaways from Coulter’s interview.
The women who filed the lawsuit that prompted Ross’ resignation, Cpl. Audra McCowan and Officer Jennifer Allen, claim that male coworkers routinely made inappropriate comments and groped them at work, and that they were belittled and transferred to less-desirable jobs when they complained — part of what the women described as a culture of sexual harassment that permeated the department.
McCowan also claimed that Ross told her earlier this year that he would seek to prevent action from being taken on her harassment complaints against another male coworker because she broke off an affair with him in 2011. Ross has denied seeking retribution against anyone.
Coulter said that she could not comment on the specific allegations in the lawsuit, but that over her three-decade career, she had been fortunate to work with supervisors who respected her and treated her fairly.
“I’ve had some bad days in the Police Department — I don’t believe any of them were because I’m a woman,” Coulter said.
Still, she added that she has seen disciplinary investigations that have revealed bad behavior, and that she plans to host a round-table talk with female officers this week to determine if the claims in the lawsuit seem common among the rank and file.
“I would feel doubly sick if I found that this was something that was widespread,” Coulter said.
Another episode that led to critiques of the department’s culture — the revelation earlier this summer that hundreds of officers had been accused of making racist or offensive Facebook posts — was “very, very disturbing,” Coulter said.
“I was sickened by some of the stuff that I read,” she said.
Last month, Ross said that 13 officers would be fired for their posts, and seven cops subsequently resigned. Coulter said Monday that several others would be suspended with intent to dismiss as the investigation continued. She did not name the officers, and said she was not certain where the process stood.
Coulter said she was disappointed that some officers’ offensive postings had turned into “a public view of the Police Department,” and said that officials also were working internally to address the concerns of cops who may have been offended or hurt by their colleagues’ social media activity.
“We can’t let that be our legacy,” Coulter said.
Supervised injection sites
Beyond cultural issues, Coulter said one of her priorities would be figuring out what role police can and should play in combating the city’s opioid crisis.
But she demurred on saying whether she believed a supervised injection site should be part of that overall plan, saying she hadn’t studied the issue.
“I don’t know what the answer is, so I can’t say if it is or isn’t” an idea she would support, Coulter said.
Last month, city officials, including Kenney, and police commanders, including Ross, visited supervised injection sites in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, to learn how they operate. Coulter was not on the trip.
A nonprofit group seeking to open a site in Philadelphia has been battling the federal government in court, after the Justice Department sued and asked a judge to declare such facilities illegal.
Leaders of the nonprofit, named Safehouse, have argued that the facilities are a public health measure designed to save lives and help people pursue treatment.
More than 2,300 people died from accidental drug overdoses in the city in 2017 and 2018. Kenney and officials at the city’s health department and District Attorney’s Office have all said they would support the opening of a supervised injection site.
Through Sunday, the city had recorded 220 homicides this year, the highest total through Aug. 25 of any year since 2012.
Coulter said the department months ago rolled out a crime-fighting plan it has dubbed “Operation Pinpoint,” in which police use data and intelligence to focus on certain hot spots. Because the plan is relatively new, Coulter said, she was not certain how or if it might need to be altered.
Reducing violence “is a priority,” Coulter said. “It’s finding what that right strategy is, and that may or may not be" a dramatic change.