On Tuesday night, Mayor Jim Kenney shocked the city when he announced in an email that Police Commissioner Richard Ross was resigning effective immediately. In the hours that followed, Philadelphia learned that Ross has been accused of ignoring allegations of sexual harassment as well as gender and racial discrimination brought by Cpl. Audra McCowan and Patrol Officer Jennifer Allen. McCowan says she and Ross had a two-year affair and she alleges in a lawsuit that Ross ignored her accusations because she had ended their relationship.
Overnight, Christine M. Coulter, a three-star deputy and the highest-ranking female in the department, was sworn in as the interim commissioner. She is the first woman to ever hold the position, though her record is not pristine. Coulter has come under scrutiny for involvement in a cover- up of a fatal police beating in 1994.
The abrupt resignation of Commissioner Ross is a challenge to the city and to Kenney’s administration that was hoping to coast into its second term without any major changes. The timing is especially unfortunate as the city and Police Department are still recovering from the long standoff between police and a gunman in Tioga that left six officers wounded.
But the resignation also opens the door to discussion about the role and priorities of police as the search for a new commissioner progresses. The Inquirer asked activists, academics, lawyers, politicians and other stakeholders what qualities they think the next police commissioner should have.
Responses were edited lightly for clarity and length. Interviews by Elena Gooray, Abraham Gutman, Erica Palan, and Sandra Shea.
The next commissioner must be committed to changing the culture in the Philadelphia Police Department. The firing of a few rogue officers in the wake of the Plain View Project, which revealed racist remarks made by officers on Facebook, is a good start but will not change culture by itself. The next commissioner must be a disruptive force for good in rooting out harmful attitudes that hurt officers inside the department and breach the trust of the community outside the four walls of the Round House. Philadelphia needs someone who will not tolerate or take lightly sexual harassment, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, excessive use of force, or illegal pedestrian stops. My hope is that these qualities can be found in an African American woman. It is beyond time to shatter the glass ceiling of gender. If not now, when? — The Rev. Dr. Mark Tyler, senior pastor, Mother Bethel AME
[Philadelphia should] seriously look at a woman, an experienced woman, to come in there and try to shake things up a little bit. This new police commissioner, whoever it is, has got to be strong enough in the face of our unusually progressive district attorney, to make sure that policing citizens, crime and grime, officers’ most important job is performed with the best possible efficiency. It’s going to have to be a strong-willed individual who will stick up for the Police Department against a district attorney who might not feel the same way about law enforcement. — Ronald D. Castille, former chief justice of the Pa. Supreme Court
The most important thing is, is to find someone who can strike a balance between what the police need to continue to be effective doing their job, who understands that he has to support the men and women of the police force in their quest to get the best working conditions, the best equipment, the best training — but who also understands that when they misstep, he has to be firm and disciplined to police officers. He has to demand a higher standard of conduct and accountability. He has to be willing to be transparent. In this day and age you can’t exist as a commissioner of a major police force without a commitment to transparency. He has to be able to admit when the police screw up — but he also has to defend them when he thinks they’ve done a good job. It’s a tough job. I think there’s no agency that’s tougher to lead in this day and age than a major police force. — Ed Rendell, former Pa. governor
If the PPD does not have a functional disciplinary, investigatory, and accountability system, the next commissioner will oversee more and more abuse, with little incentive for change. The next commissioner must do her part to make the next Fraternal Order of Police contract one that gives far more power to communities with complaints against the police, and work to make our Police Advisory Commission one with binding power to investigate and hold police accountable for abuse. — Hannah Sassaman, policy director, Media Mobilizing Project
[The next commissioner] needs to be someone who is collaborator, in addition to reducing homicides. This commissioner has to be able to collaborate with the FBI, ATF, and Attorney General’s Office, as well as refining the skills for a new breed of officer. It’s tough to be a police officer; it’s dangerous, and there’s distrust. The commissioner has to be focused on making people feel safer in Philadelphia. That includes reductions in homicides, as well as violence and street crime. This commissioner will need less ego, more insight. Technology is important. So is vision, and compassion. — Anthony Hardy Williams, Pa. state senator
The city has a unique opportunity to reset the narrative on its commitment to reduce nonfatal shootings and homicides, one of the most serious threats to community well-being. The candidate should not only understand, appreciate, and use scientific evidence as a base for effective gun violence reduction practices and programs, but also should have leadership skills to dispel the noise of implementing unproven strategies and those that unnecessarily feed our mass incarceration problem and perpetuate racial disparities. A commissioner with a nuanced understanding of research can blend local knowledge and experience of strong command staff and line officers with scientific evidence to create realistic strategies that are politically and operationally practical. Furthermore, a commissioner well-versed in evidence-based solutions to gun violence would commit to and be a major voice behind the idea that safe and just communities require policing practices that include prevention. — Dr. Caterina Roman, professor of criminal justice at Temple University
Philadelphia’s next police commissioner must be passionate about building trust with the community and morale among the rank and file, experienced in addressing the crime and safety challenges facing the city — the rising tide of gun violence and a decade’s high homicide rate — and bold enough to take on the deep-seated culture issues within the department, such as racism, sexism, and sexual misconduct. That person should be a strong and compassionate leader, willing to lift up the many good officers who protect our city every day and to root out the bad actors among them. — Rebecca Rhynhart, Philadelphia’s controller
Being a police commissioner in a major city now is to have the strength of character to resist some of the political influences that are thrust on them. Police chiefs are a pretty big deal in cities in America now with some of the violence that they’re contending with. It’s important that they have the ability to guide their agency without regard to the political winds of the moment. ... [The mayor should] focus, not on someone who’s going to champion political issues like decarceration, or legalizing marijuana, or changing gun laws and things like that, I would deemphasize those things — those are political issues to be debated among elected people. And emphasize more strengths as a leader within the organization to lead it to a better place as an administrator. — Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund and former deputy police commissioner in Baltimore
We’re dealing with a trend of bad racist views from police. We also are seeing a culture of sexual harassment. The next commissioner should have a clear plan to address those issues, in the form of racial bias training and training to address sexism and gender bias. There should also be real accountability around harassment and prejudice.
I would also like to see police focus more on deescalation. The shooting in Tioga was an example of being able to deescalate an extremely high-tension situation. If you can do it for that, you can do it for a lot of situations. — Rick Krajewski, criminal justice reform organizer with Reclaim Philadelphia
I think first you want to ensure that the person you choose not only has police or law enforcement background knowledge and experience, but also cultural awareness and knowledge.You want someone with a knowledge base and focus on training, who understands the validity of establishing a training curriculum that is not just set on tradition, but also has the space to encompass all that law enforcement is becoming as laws, policies, and attitudes change.
Coming after Commissioner Ross, you’re following a commissioner who was a cops’ cop. He knew and understood the importance of safety for his officers, including training. When you remove that kind of person, you want someone who will at least follow up with that.
And finally, you need someone who understands working relationships and has management skills, someone who knows how to run an organization and how to assign people to the right places based on efficiency and effectiveness. — Malika Rahman, former law enforcement officer
Mayor Kenney should choose a police commissioner who is dedicated to fairness and integrity in policing, specific measures to address racial and gender bias, transparency in police operations, and accountability at every level of the department. Specifically, the new commissioner should (1) continue the reforms in stop-and-frisk practices to ensure that stops are justified and to eliminate racial disparities, (2) expand the department’s best practices in eyewitness identification practices, recording of interrogations, and strict supervision of narcotics enforcement, and (3) establish independent and professional accountability measures in the investigation and adjudication of civilian complaints of misconduct. — David Rudovsky, senior fellow at Penn Law
There are 10 Commandments of what makes a good police commissioner. The first commandment: Thou shalt not refuse to publicly and repeatedly call for the repeal of the state arbitration law known as Legislative Act 111 of 1968 that allows the American Arbitration Association (AAA) to “ignore findings of fact” regarding brutality, corruption, and other misconduct deemed founded by Internal Affairs Division (IAD) and the Police Board of Inquiry (PBI) and that also allows the AAA to “reject the punishment” assessed by IAD and PBI “even if the facts as charged have been proven.”
The second commandment: Thou shalt not, in the meantime, refuse to suspend, reassign to permanent desk duty, demote, and/or fire brutal, corrupt, and/or perjurious officers.
The third through tenth commandments: See commandment one above. — Michael Coard, criminal defense attorney
The next chief in Philadelphia needs to be someone able to build a culture of professional excellence. In policing, that means a commitment to evidence and legitimacy. In terms of evidence, the next chief should commit to gathering data on police encounters and share independent, third-party analyses of those data for undue burden or disparities with the public. In terms of legitimacy, they should commit to collaborating with communities to identify police priorities and adjudicate complaints. Finally, there is no path toward a safer Philadelphia if the chief does not recognize that officers’ voices must also be heard. — Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The city of Philadelphia needs a commissioner who embraces the most radical and democratic vision possible. The new commissioner must accept that we cannot arrest our way out of social problems. This means that we cannot criminalize drug addiction, homelessness, and other circumstances caused by medical, economic, and social crises. Beyond that, the commissioner must be willing to partner with other public and private organizations to support the vulnerable. An excellent example of this would be supporting safe injection sites as a response to heroin addiction.
The new commissioner must also be willing to be held accountable by the community. Ideally, the next commissioner’s vision will be so progressive that their job will one day be virtually obsolete. — Marc Lamont Hill, professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University
The Philadelphia Police Department needs a strong leader. Someone who will not continue business as usual, who will have the uncomfortable conversations and confront the culture and practices that have driven a wedge between the department and the communities it is supposed to serve. Commissioner Ross started that process when he brought stop-and-frisk numbers down dramatically, and when he launched a major investigation following the publication of racist and violent Facebook posts by PPD officers. There is more work to be done. Mayor Kenney should look for a commissioner who cares enough to lead. — Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director, American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania