THE IMPORTANCE of fighting for justice was bred into Rochelle Bilal at an early age.
With the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Marshall Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia as her stomping grounds, Bilal absorbed relatives' stories of marching with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and taking part in boycotts and sit-ins of the civil-rights movement.
Applying that same sentiment of equality as a police officer, single mother and community leader, Bilal has stood up for her fellow officers and Philadelphians.
For her work, she is being honored as a finalist of the 24th George Fencl Award.
"In my family, advocacy has always been a big part," she said recently in an interview at the headquarters of the Guardian Civic League, which she serves as president, at 15th Street near Girard Avenue.
"The images and the people I surrounded myself with have kept me going," she said. "They just stood up for something."
The Daily News established the Fencl Award to honor cops who, like George Fencl, the late Civil Affairs inspector, bring courage, passion and dedication to their jobs.
Colleagues of Bilal, 51, a 23-year veteran, say that she fits that description to a T.
"I like what she stands for," said Elaine Thomas, a 12-year veteran in the 18th District and the league's recording secretary.
She credits Bilal for launching two programs aimed at holding youth and cops accountable.
The One-Day Boot Camp tries to steer teens in West and Southwest Philly away from trouble.
The Stare Straight program tries to prevent cops with less than five years' experience from making hasty and costly decisions while on duty.
"She has good ideas and expectations," said Thomas, who's been a member of the league for as long as she's been a cop.
Sgt. Deborah Francis, who supervises Bilal in a Narcotics unit, described her as a "conscientious cop with a good heart."
Francis, a 19-year veteran, recalled when her own group, Minority Women in Policing, ran out of toys during a Christmas gift giveaway. Bilal, who also had her hands full with giveaways in another part of town, sprang into action.
"She showed up with a truckload of gifts," Francis said.
Bilal's decorated career began in 1986 after she graduated from the Police Academy.
For five years, she patrolled Southwest Philadelphia as a beat cop in the 18th District, at 55th and Pine streets.
She later went to the Juvenile Aid Division for a year, before being assigned to the Special Victims Unit - then called the Sex Crimes Unit - where she stayed for 14 years.
For about three years, Bilal has been in the High Intensity Drug Task Force, a small intelligence unit in Narcotics.
Along with her role as president of the league, Bilal is secretary of the Philadelphia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and has held positions in various black law-enforcement organizations.
But Bilal said that her mission is to remain a seeker of justice.
Since news broke that Officer William Thrasher, 22, a cop in the 22nd District, was quoted in January as using racial epithets to describe some black residents of the district he patrolled, Bilal became one of the more vocal critics calling for his dismissal. Nearly three months later, she got her wish when Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey dismissed Thrasher for his alleged comments.
Although she said that shedding the department of bad seeds is one of her missions, her ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between the community and cops.
"I want to help our people to know that they don't have to be afraid of the police, and not all police are bad," she said.
"I want to show our children that there are positive police officers out there." *