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Richard Neal Sr., former Philadelphia police commissioner, dies at 81

He served in the Police Department with distinction for 36 years, nearly six as commissioner. In addition to his vast experience, Mayor Ed Rendell called him “a beat cop, first, last and always.”

Commissioner Neal, always anxious to hear the concerns of others, listens to residents in 1994.
Commissioner Neal, always anxious to hear the concerns of others, listens to residents in 1994.Read moreJim MacMillan

Richard Neal Sr., 81, the former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, died Saturday, Dec. 11, after a stroke at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

Known for his quiet, calm demeanor and commitment to community policing, Commissioner Neal served nearly six years in the Police Department’s top job, beginning in August 1992. He resigned under pressure on March 6, 1998, four weeks short of the 36th anniversary of his hiring as a patrolman.

He then worked for a few more years as a security consultant for Drexel University and the Penn’s Landing Corporation development group before retiring to spend time and travel with his wife, Dolores. He was replaced as commissioner by John Timoney.

“He always wanted to make things better and equal for all people,” said his wife of 59 years. “He wanted to make the community better, and he saw a way to do that through law enforcement.”

Before being named to the top job by Mayor Ed Rendell, Commissioner Neal worked in community relations for the Police Department, and served in leadership positions for the 19th Police District, Internal Affairs, the city housing police, and the Patrol Bureau.

He replaced Willie Williams as commissioner after Williams left to become chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. In making that announcement, Rendell praised Commissioner Neal, then 52, as stable, calm, and decisive, “a beat cop, first, last and always.”

Commissioner Neal resigned after being criticized by City Council members, state representatives, and others for what he called “political reasons.” And he refused to blame the department or his tenure for what detractors cited as his failure to solve the city’s drug problem and reduce crime.

“I think for anyone to suggest that all of the ills of society, particularly related to the issue of crime and drugs, lies wholly in the hands of law enforcement is utterly ridiculous,” he said in 1998.

At the time, Rendell called Commissioner Neal “as class an act as you’ll find in any city government.”

Commissioner Neal was credited by many during his term for improving police equipment, upgrading the police academy, boosting officer integrity, instituting bike patrols, and many other initiatives.

On the same February day in 1998 that he announced his resignation, The Inquirer wrote that an updated analysis of police data found that crime had actually dropped by almost 10 percent in the first half of 1997, compared with the first six months of 1996.

“I think a lot of people owe Rich Neal an apology,” Rendell said shortly after that story was published.

A month later, Commissioner Neal told the Daily News: “When people look back at the years I served, they’ll find we made dramatic, lasting changes in that department.”

One chief inspector told the Daily News: “He did an outstanding job. His only problem was that he didn’t sell himself.”

Born March 11, 1940, in South Philadelphia, Commissioner Neal graduated from Edward W. Bok Technical High School in 1957. He worked at first at a sheet metal company in South Philadelphia, and joined the Police Department in 1962 because, his wife said, he saw it as his best chance to make a lasting difference in the community.

At first, he walked a beat on Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia. He became a sergeant in 1968, a lieutenant in 1978, and a chief inspector in 1991. “I used to quiz him on the tests he would take for the promotions,” his wife said. “He was fully prepared for every opportunity.”

Commissioner Neal met his wife when they were in junior high school, and they married in October 1962. They lived in West Oak Lane and Mount Airy, and had sons Richard Neal Jr. and Jason. They had been living in Phoenixville for the last 22 years.

“He was the wind beneath his wife’s wings,” his family wrote in a tribute.

Away from work, Commissioner Neal liked to take five-mile walks at Valley Green in Fairmount Park and talk shop with Jim Clark, the longtime commander of the department’s Homicide Unit. He and his family visited Disney World seven times, and he and his wife enjoyed visits to California and elsewhere.

He liked to watch the Eagles and 76ers games on TV, and would cheer loudly when things went well. He was proud that he never used his gun as an officer.

He was a member of many professional associations and won several awards, including the U.S. Attorney General’s William French Smith Award for outstanding contributions to cooperative law enforcement.

“He was a very caring person,” his wife said. “He would do anything for anybody, and he made people feel comfortable.”

“When I look back,” he said in 1998, “I’m proud of my years of service.’’

In addition to his wife and sons, Commissioner Neal is survived by three grandchildren, and other relatives. Three brothers died earlier.

A viewing is to be held at 9 a.m., Monday, Dec. 20, at Deliverance Evangelistic Church, 2001 W. Lehigh Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19132. A service is to follow at 11 a.m. Burial is to be at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Donations in his name may be made to the Police Athletic League of Philadelphia, 3068 Belgrade St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19134, and the Gift of Life Donor Program, 401 N. 3rd Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19123.