Tuesday’s City Council hearing about the Plain View Project that exposed racist and offensive Facebook posts by 330 active duty Philadelphia police officers inadvertently provided the perfect illustration of the sorry state of the city’s police department: The hearing began with an apology from the acting commissioner for her racist action in the past, well before Facebook was even invented.
Acting Police Commissioner Christine M. Coulter was the first to testify, and started her remarks by apologizing for a photo in which she is seen wearing a T-shirt in the 1990s that read “L.A.P.D. We Treat You Like a King,” a reference to the infamous and racist 1991 beating of Rodney King. She explained that, at the time, she didn’t see the reference but looking back at it now she understands why the shirt is offensive and she would have acted differently.
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It’s extremely improbable that as a police officer, the words “King” and “L.A.P.D.” didn’t immediately remind Coulter of the most high-profile policing case of the 1990s. King’s case drew national interest, including front-page coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. By pleading ignorance, Coulter shed light on the willful blindness that made it possible for the police leadership to ignore more than 5,000 offensive public posts until the Plain View project exposed them. Since June, 15 police officers have been fired.
Coulter and Managing Director Brian Abernathy said that the city is providing antiracism and diversity training and updating social media policy in response to the Plain View Project. Abernathy also said the city created a survey for residents to respond to online or in print about their priorities for the next commissioner to help inform the process. That’s the extent of the public involvement in the hiring process. Both these actions fall short.
The racist Facebook posts by officers are a symptom, not the problem. They are a manifestation of an ossified culture that has not undergone fundamental change for decades. The most important thing that the city and the policy can do at this moment is to take the community more seriously. Members of the community must have a seat at the decision making table — not just in the policing policies that impact their community, but in the review process as the city picks a new commissioner.
This city’s brief public survey inviting people to weigh in on how the city picks its next commissioner is a good idea, but to keep the survey from being a mere feel-good exercise, the city should figure out how to engage the public more deeply, such as ensuring the Police Advisory Commission has a vote at the hiring process, creating a commissioner-hiring panel that includes community members, and/or holding public sessions reviewing candidates and qualifications.