A decade ago, before #BlackLivesMatter, before Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, before camera phones immortalized the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police, there was a Philadelphia narcotics squad that allegedly ran amok in black and brown communities.
Officer Thomas Tolstoy was a key member of that narcotics squad, and their exploits were covered in a Daily News Pulitzer Prize-winning series called Tainted Justice. The squad carried out raids in mom and pop stores, and it was alleged by a number of witnesses that they disabled surveillance cameras and after the officers cut or yanked the wires, thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise went missing. Perhaps worse, it was alleged that Tolstoy sexually assaulted at least three women while taking part in home raids. And while federal authorities declined to bring criminal charges against Tolstoy and others related to that behavior, the city, without admitting wrongdoing, reportedly paid out $227,500 to two women who said Tolstoy sexually assaulted them. A third woman, who alleged that Tolstoy stuck his fingers into her vagina during one such raid, stopped cooperating with investigating officers after a time, and police were unable to make a case.
Still, Tolstoy was placed on desk duty for years after that, and he was punished internally with at least one 30-day suspension. All of which begs the question: Why, in an era where former police commissioner Richard Ross resigned in the wake of allegations that he and other top brass ignored female officers’ complaints of sexual harassment, did interim police commissioner Christine Coulter promote Thomas Tolstoy?
Why, after Mayor Jim Kenney made a huge show of telling the city that the department needed to do more to address sexual harassment, does an officer who allegedly engaged in a pattern of predatory sexual behavior win promotion?
In a statement, mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn said, “Police promotions are governed by civil service regulations and the FOP contract. The Mayor defers to the Commissioner’s handling of them.”
That may very well be, but the police commissioner serves at the pleasure of the mayor. And if Mayor Kenney is serious about stamping out sexual abuse in the department, then he should address this issue immediately, and he should fight to make sure the police contract addresses these kinds of situations. Otherwise his words on sexual harassment and abuse are empty, and the appointment of a female interim police commissioner means nothing.
Not only that: It’s impossible for me to believe that the mayor and police commissioner have no influence over promotions, especially when the Fraternal Order of Police is working to wield its own brand of influence.
According to reporting by the Philadelphia Tribune, in a Nov. 20 letter to Interim Police Commissioner Christine Coulter, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby endorsed the promotions and transfers of Tolstoy and 11 others:
In the letter, which I obtained from a source close to the police department, McNesby writes to Coulter, “Per our conversation, can you please consider the below with the upcoming promotions and transfers?” The letter ends with the words, “Any consideration would be greatly appreciated.”
If the decisions are made only based on contracts and regulations, as the mayor’s office said, why would there be a need for such a letter? McNesby’s letter shows that there is sometimes room for the Commissioner’s discretion. In my view, she should have exercised that discretion when it came to Thomas Tolstoy.
To be clear, this is a man who allegedly engaged in a pattern of criminal behavior. Video footage showed Tolstoy and his cohorts disabling video systems in the stores where money and goods went missing. Three witnesses accused Tolstoy of sexually violating them.
People should be allowed to grow and change after making a mistake. But Tolstoy’s alleged pattern of abuse does not, in my opinion, point toward a person worthy of promotion.
I’m tired of protesting this kind of abuse. I’m tired of calling out behavior that’s abusive and wrong. But we can’t get tired of challenging systems that abuse our communities.
Otherwise we are part of the problem, too.