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Frank Rizzo leaves a legacy of unchecked police brutality and division in Philadelphia

As Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor, Rizzo oversaw a police force that became notorious nationwide for its violence.

Tuxedo-clad Mayor Frank L. Rizzo with nightstick arriving to the scene of a disturbance in a low-income housing project in 1969.
Tuxedo-clad Mayor Frank L. Rizzo with nightstick arriving to the scene of a disturbance in a low-income housing project in 1969.Read moreFile Photograph

Ordinarily, it would have sounded like an apocryphal story — a police commissioner showing up at a crime scene in a tuxedo. But a news photographer captured the moment when Frank Rizzo arrived at what was described as a “racial incident” at 25th Street and Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, on a June night in 1969, a nightstick tucked into his cummerbund.

It was an image that perfectly summed up Rizzo, and the tone he set for the Philadelphia Police Department. His supporters saw a flamboyant leader who wouldn’t tolerate crime. His detractors saw a man who was eager to use brute force to snuff out any hint of unrest, especially in the black community, and who encouraged his thousands of officers to do the same, without having to worry about facing scrutiny about whether they’d gone too far.

For years, Philadelphia wrestled with the question of which of these was the real Frank Rizzo.

A careful look at his legacy, however, shows that federal officials, civil rights attorneys, community residents, and politicians all voiced consistently similar concern in the 1960s and 1970s that Rizzo had allowed the Police Department to operate with little accountability, leading to an environment where police shot civilians at a rate of one per week between 1970 and 1978.

Rizzo’s defenders might argue that these are old ghosts being resurrected to justify Mayor Jim Kenney’s decision to remove a bronze statue of Rizzo from the steps in front of the Municipal Services Building, where it has been a favorite target of protesters for the last two decades.

But Rizzo’s influence left an imprint on the Philadelphia Police Department that it continues to reckon with even now, nearly 30 years after he died while seeking a third mayoral term.

Problematic officers may be fired or even arrested, but they all too often can count on being reinstated through arbitration. Others rely on a culture of secrecy to keep their misdeeds buried, while cops who report misbehavior can face retaliation.

“You can’t pick and choose when you decide to follow the rules,” said Michael Churchill, who serves of counsel for the Public Interest Law Center, and helped compile a landmark report on Philadelphia police shootings in 1979.

“[Rizzo] thought it was important for his image that the force understood he wasn’t going to control them.”

David Kairys, a professor emeritus at Temple University Law School who legally clashed with Rizzo over police misconduct in the 1960s, said the impact was severe on the city’s reputation. “We became more famous for police misconduct than we were for cheesesteaks,” Kairys said.

» READ MORE: The Rizzo statue disappeared overnight. Philadelphia is still unpacking its legacy.

The Cisco Kid

Born in 1920 to Italian immigrants, Frank Rizzo grew up the oldest of four boys in a two-story rowhome in South Philadelphia. His father was a city police officer, a disciplinarian in the Italian tradition.

He dropped out of high school and followed his father’s lead to the Philadelphia Police Department. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he was an imposing guy, one who didn’t get lost in the shadows. He was a cop’s cop, a rough-and-tumble street fighter who talked the talk.

“Break their heads is right. They try to break yours, you break theirs first,” he once said.

He was sort of a George Patton type, a law-and-order man — flashy, aggressive, with a sharp tongue. He became known as “The Cisco Kid,” after a popular television cowboy, for his raids on strip clubs and after-hour spots. Everyone thought it fit.

“All Frank Rizzo has done all his life is protect people from criminals at great personal risk and discomfort,” Rizzo once said, slipping into the third person.

He rose through the ranks, to deputy commissioner in 1963, and police commissioner in 1967.

Rizzo summed up his philosophy in blunt terms. “The way to treat criminals is spacco il capo,” he said as top cop, using the Italian for “break their heads.”

He boasted that he had “the toughest cops in the world,” and that his Police Department was strong enough to invade Cuba.

Kenneth Salaam, known as “Freedom Smitty,” who quit high school at 16 and became active in the civil rights movement in Philadelphia, remembers Rizzo well.

On May 1, 1965, Salaam was one of about 25 protesters outside Girard College, which at the time was a boarding school that only admitted poor, orphaned white boys. Salaam and the others, under the leadership of Cecil B. Moore, president of the NAACP Philadelphia chapter, marched for equality outside the 40-acre campus with 10-foot walls.

Rizzo, as deputy police commissioner in charge of uniformed cops, was on the scene. Hundreds of cops were there, toe to toe, stopping protesters from jumping the wall.

“The second week, Rizzo ordered the cops to get on their motorcycles and run into us and run us over,” said Salaam, now 71.

“A lot of people were hit. People were injured,” he recalled. One time, when protesters lay in the street to stop traffic, Rizzo told cops to beat them — with fists, nightsticks, whatever. "We never knew when they were going to rush us. People were bleeding.”

On another occasion, Salaam and the others stayed overnight, lying on the sidewalk in sleeping bags. Rizzo ordered the cops who sat nearby in Jeeps to keep their engines running. “The area was flooded with carbon monoxide," Salaam recalled. "People got sick.”

In 1967, when Rizzo was police commissioner, Salaam was one of a handful of protesters who handcuffed himself outside the post office at 30th and Market Streets to fight for equal-hiring practices. The cops came and cuffed them with their arms between their legs so they had to hop to the police wagon. “You couldn’t walk like a person,” he said.

When they stumbled out of the wagon, the white officers had formed two lines on either side of a ramp, cursing them with a racial slur and saying, "You want freedom? Come through then,” he said.

“Then they beat us. They were hitting us so hard. It was like running the gauntlet. The nightsticks were long and wooden, but inside there was a bar of steel. Some were worn out and the steel was exposed. When the steel hit the ground, you could see sparks. I thought, ‘They’re trying to kill us,’ ” he said.

That same year, 3,000 high school students staged a protest over educational issues and some clashed with police. Two protesters said they heard Rizzo say, “Get their black asses!” Rizzo denied saying it.

In 1970, after a series of shootings of police, one fatal, Rizzo ordered a raid on Philadelphia’s Black Panthers headquarters, in which six suspects were handcuffed, placed against a wall, and stripped naked. The shocking scene was documented by news photographers.

“They’re a little angry. They were humiliated. We took their pants off them, to search them,” Rizzo said in a scene from director Robert Mugge’s 1978 documentary, Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo.

In 1971, when Rizzo decided to run for mayor, the black community viewed him warily, but his supporters embraced him for being the “toughest cop in America.”

State Sen. Anthony Williams’ father, Hardy Williams, ran unsuccessfully against Rizzo in the Democratic mayoral primary that year. The senator recalls being warned, as a teenager, to avoid doing anything that might cause him to be taken into police custody.

“They could pick you up and then rough you up,” he said. “Frankly, a lot of what happened, didn’t happen in the public eye.”

Rizzo became the first police commissioner elected mayor of a U.S. city. Popular in much of the city, even adored by some, he easily won reelection in 1975.

Deadly force, unchecked

For every disturbing anecdote that emerged about the violence police directed toward minorities during Rizzo’s time as commissioner and then mayor, he had an easy rebuttal: Cops were just doing what was needed to maintain law and order. But independent observers told a different story.

In 1979, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against the entire Philadelphia Police Department for a barrage of disturbing practices, including shooting nonviolent suspects, beating people while they were handcuffed, and using a “purposely fragmented system” for internal investigations that ensured civilian complaints didn’t go far.

Rizzo derided the complaint as “complete hogwash.” Federal officials threatened to withhold funding from the department unless it made extensive reforms. A judge later tossed the lawsuit.

But a study completed that same year by Churchill and the Public Interest Law Center found more problems: In 1978, Philadelphia police had shot 17 unarmed people, killing eight. In one confrontation, an officer shot and killed a man who was naked, armed only with a tree limb.

Churchill found the city lacked detailed records for many police shootings.

“The department was basically into what you might call ‘looking tough.’ It was an important part of their image,” he said. “There were more disciplinary actions against people for not having their shoes polished than for substantial misconduct.”

In September 1978, police shot 19-year-old Cornell Warren in the back, killing him as he fled with his hands handcuffed behind him. Police were escorting him into the Roundhouse after a traffic violation. Two officers were charged; one was acquitted at trial, and the other had his case thrown out.

That same year, Rizzo unsuccessfully fought for a charter change to permit him to run for a third term. At the time, he complained that his opponents had urged African Americans to “vote black.”

“I’m asking white people and blacks who think like me to vote like Frank Rizzo,” he said. “I say vote white.”

Fits and starts

Efforts to push the police force beyond the problems that festered during the Rizzo years moved in fits and starts.

Ed Rendell was elected district attorney in 1977 with a platform that included a pledge to have a unit of investigators who focused solely on police misconduct.

“It was a difficult undertaking,” Rendell said. “Rizzo set up a culture that the police could do no wrong. If someone was a bad guy, you could beat him up. [Officers] believed, when Frank Rizzo was mayor, that they had a free pass.”

Churchill noted that the department adopted reforms under Commissioner Morton Solomon — an appointee of Mayor Bill Green in the early 1980s — that led to a dramatic drop in police shootings.

That progress was upended in 1985, when the city, under then-Mayor Wilson Goode, dropped a bomb on a house occupied by members of the radical group MOVE, sparking a blaze that devoured an entire neighborhood. Eleven people, including five children, died inside the MOVE building. Rizzo would later point out that no civilians were killed when his department had clashed with MOVE in Powelton in 1978.

A police officer was shot to death in that confrontation.

Rizzo was still lingering on the political stage, running unsuccessful mayoral campaigns in 1983 as a Democrat, and in 1987 as a Republican. An attempt to rebrand himself as the “new Rizzo” failed.

“We can understand why some people supported him then, and maybe still do today,” said Mugge, the director. “But unfortunately, it’s impossible not to face up to the racism that underlies it.”

Rizzo staged another mayoral run in 1991, and emerged victorious in the Republican primary election. But this attempted comeback ended when he died of a heart attack, at age 70, in his campaign office.

His funeral was one of the largest in the city’s history.

A symbol, a lightning rod

In the aftermath of his death, Rizzo’s supporters raised money for a statue to commemorate his outsize influence on the city.

It was an effort that, in hindsight, is now regarded by some as unnecessary. Rendell, for one, said no mayor should be commemorated with a statue — himself included.

But Rizzo’s statue was planted across from City Hall in 1999.

» READ MORE: How Mayor Jim Kenney abruptly ended years of delays to remove the Frank Rizzo statue

The city continued to confront episodes of police corruption and misbehavior.

Activists, politicians and city residents came to regard his statue as a symbol of racism, division and the darkest times in American history. In recent days, protesters sickened by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, defaced it with paint, set it on fire, and wrapped ropes around it in an attempt to topple it to the ground.

Kenney vowed to remove it in about a month.

Instead, at about 2 a.m. Wednesday, while the city was still cloaked in darkness, a crane lifted the wobbling 10-foot bronze statue as workers shook it from its stand.

It was loaded into the back of a truck and hauled away to be placed in storage. After decades of debating Rizzo’s legacy, there was nothing else to be said.