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Jim Kenney is about to shape Philly police for years to come. Will he make the right call? | Opinion

It's unclear who the mayor will select as his police commissioner. But that person will be tasked with repairing the department's image and solving multiple complicated problems.

When it comes to appointing the next police commissioner, the stakes for Philadelphia couldn't be higher. Is Mayor Jim Kenney up to the job of naming the replacement?
When it comes to appointing the next police commissioner, the stakes for Philadelphia couldn't be higher. Is Mayor Jim Kenney up to the job of naming the replacement?Read moreCynthia Greer and AP

The clock is ticking for Jim Kenney, who has just two weeks left to make what could be his most important decision as mayor: the selection of a new police commissioner.

It’s fitting that this self-imposed deadline will arrive while the third floor of the Macy’s across from City Hall is occupied by a life-size diorama depicting A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ tale of a man forced to confront the specter of his past choices, and the threat they pose to his future.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Philadelphia is at an inflection point, buoyed by more than a decade of modest population growth and development, but still hampered by deep poverty, crumbling schools, and an appalling amount of gun violence.

Kenney’s administration has attempted to push the city forward, to make government, in particular, more progressive. But the Police Department — arguably the most critical civic puzzle piece — is stuck in existential quicksand, weighed down by an alarming number of morale-killing scandals that sprouted from deeper-rooted problems.

Consider some of the recent lowlights.

Fifteen officers were fired earlier this year for making racist or otherwise questionable posts on Facebook, and the posts of hundreds of other cops needed to be reviewed by Internal Affairs after they were published as part of a research project on police bias.

Carl Holmes, a former chief inspector, was charged in October with sexually assaulting three female cops more than a decade ago; his alleged misdeeds were well-known, but he was allowed to rise to the department’s upper echelon anyway — and remain there, even after the city spent more than $1.3 million to settle lawsuits against him.

Richard Ross, whom Kenney appointed commissioner in 2015, resigned in August. Abruptly. Awkwardly. Accused, in a lawsuit, of retaliating against a cop after she ended their relationship, of perpetuating the kind of culture that protected men like Holmes and penalized women who complained about being harassed at work.

The homicide rate has climbed for the third year in a row, and more than 100 juveniles have been shot, at a rate of one nearly every four days. Cops are at risk, too; six were shot in the middle of a rowhouse drug bust.

Whomever Kenney picks will be expected to address these issues with more than just sound bites. That person will shape how the Police Department is perceived, locally and nationally, for years to come.

But Kenney has said little publicly about these challenges. Mayor Kenney avoids the spotlight as much as possible, holding news conferences only when he has no choice. It’s a stark contrast to the old Kenney, Jimmy from South Philly, the guy who wasn’t afraid to be brutally honest — on Twitter or in council chambers — about the city’s problems, or what needed to be done to address them.

That’s the attitude he needs now.

Insider vs. outsider

Let’s rewind to a simpler time for a moment.

In 2015, when the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 endorsed Kenney for mayor, its leaders made it clear they wanted him to choose someone like Ross — an insider, a Philly lifer — instead of another outsider like his predecessor, Charles Ramsey, who often railed against departmental and labor rules that allowed corruption to fester.

Ramsey successfully fought to update the department’s disciplinary code, which had remained unchanged for four decades. Like John Timoney, another brash outsider, he fired plenty of bad apples, and challenged the union.

But both Ramsey and Timoney found that it was difficult to achieve long-lasting change, thanks to an arbitration process that often frustrates city attorneys. Between 2011 and 2019, the FOP successfully fought to have firings and other forms of discipline overturned about 70% of the time through arbitration.

“Any organization is only as good as the people in it. The majority of people are good people,” Ramsey said in reference to the Police Department earlier this year. “But in our profession, the few taint the many. And that’s the problem.”

In a statement, Kenney said that he’s “deeply disturbed” by the allegations against Carl Holmes, and is pursuing changes to how sexual-misconduct complaints are investigated, “both through contract negotiations and internal policies that are within the City and the PPD’s control.”

In Larry Krasner, the city has a district attorney who is willing to file criminal charges against cops like Holmes. The FOP regards Krasner as Public Enemy No. 1, but a new commissioner who wants to clean house could view him as an asset.

Kenney is mum about the men and women he’s considering. The Police Executive Research Forum, a national policy nonprofit, has helped to identify candidates, and a mayoral spokesperson said “internal and external” candidates are being considered.

I reached out to a handful of police commanders who have worked in divisions and districts across the city for decades, men and women who joined the police force because they believed in the job’s nobility, and are disgusted by those who disgrace the badge. They offered frank opinions on how Kenney should proceed, on the condition that their names not be printed.

“Nobody in the department is the right person for the job,” said one commander. “Every last one of the folks who are vying for the job have sat back and allowed the situation to get where it is today, where there’s rampant discrimination and all kinds of lawsuits.”

The only choice, this commander argued, is to hire an outsider. “Somebody who doesn’t owe anybody anything ... somebody who will be a fresh start, because that’s what the department needs.”

Another supervisor was even more blunt: “You’ve got to blow it up.”

Philly’s future on the line

Kenney has the option of sticking with Christine Coulter, the acting commissioner, the first woman to hold the position in Philadelphia. Coulter told me she interviewed for the permanent job, but isn’t actively campaigning because she’s busy running the department.

She recently signed off on nearly 200 promotions, including one for Thomas Tolstoy, who was once accused of sexually assaulting three women, and worked on a narcotics squad that was the subject of a federal corruption probe — allegations that were detailed in the Daily News’ 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, Tainted Justice.

Ramsey once said that he believed there was some truth to the allegations about Tolstoy, and the city paid more than $200,000 to settle a pair of lawsuits against him. But a lack of evidence, and questions some investigators raised about reporters’ tactics, resulted in no charges ever being filed.

Coulter said it would have been easy, but not right, to deny Tolstoy a promotion to sergeant, even at a time when officials like City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart are pushing to overhaul the way the department investigates sexual misconduct.

Tolstoy hasn’t been named in any new complaints in 10 years, Coulter said, and she’s a believer in the “concept of redemption.” (She did, however, deny promotions for eight other cops.)

“I do believe that folks who are truly remorseful can turn out to be very good supervisors,” she said.

It’s a nice sentiment. But then city officials used to argue that Holmes had redeemed himself, too, because an arbitrator overturned a demotion Holmes received after police found semen in his city-issued SUV.

When Holmes was arrested, plenty of higher-ups — Coulter included — claimed that they didn’t know or couldn’t remember much about the well-documented allegations against him.

Kenney has seen, time and again, what a forgive-and-forget mind-set has brought the Police Department: crises and embarrassment.

The brighter chapter that the city is trying to write for itself isn’t yet finished. Surely the mayor doesn’t want it to be ruined by the same old ghosts.

David Gambacorta is a writer-at-large at The Inquirer. He has been covering the Police Department since 2005.