MAYBE THE GUYS running the Philadelphia Police Department don't like movies. Or movies about cops. Or free food. Nah, that's crazy. Who doesn't like free food?
Hey, I'm just trying to understand why the department would decline an invitation for a movie night at the Daily News with no explanation. Did I mention we had free food?
Here was the invite: Come to 801 Market St. on Wednesday to watch a documentary about the militarization of police departments with a few reporters and a small group of people who are invested in the issue of police reform.
A casual viewing. A Panera sandwich and some doughnuts from Frangelli's in South Philly. And a little conversation among SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel; Police Advisory Commission Executive Director Kelvyn Anderson; local writers Christopher Norris and Vincent Heck; and Asa Khalif, cousin of Brandon Tate-Brown.
Tate-Brown was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop in December. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing. Relatives and supporters and police have routinely clashed over how the case was handled.
So why would anyone at the PPD want to be subjected to another potential confrontation, right?
Well, for starters, you can't tout transparency if it's only on your terms. You can't build community relations that way either.
Although no one guaranteed that things wouldn't go south Wednesday, movie night was as good a time as any to try to have a meaningful conversation. It was neutral ground. It was a situation in which the two sides rarely find themselves. No TV cameras, no protest, no screaming activists, no officers on the defensive. Just a small group watching a movie, having some food and talking about an important and timely film.
The film, "Peace Officer," tells the story of William "Dub" Lawrence, a Utah lawman who in 1975 started the local SWAT team that in 2008 would kill his son-in-law and who now investigates police shootings.
The conversation in the conference room ranged from excessive police force and police accountability to a community's frustrations at being devalued and disrespected. Often it transcended race, because the victims in the film were white. Khalif spoke emotionally about his cousin, and about how painful the one-year anniversary of his death will be for his family. Did the group solve the issues that so often put the community and police at odds? No. Did anyone kumbaya it out? No. But one moment between Khalif and Nestel struck me.
Nestel has been on the receiving end of some of the most vitriolic criticism from protesters, not because he or his department were involved in police-involved shootings, but because when the community calls on him, he actually shows up. By default he becomes the representative for all cops who don't.
"Thank you for being here just to listen and to be open to the dialogue," Khalif told Nestel. "When there is an olive branch extended and it's accepted, that needs to be focused on as well."
Khalif said he and others have extended formal and informal invitations to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to talk, but the requests have gone unanswered.
What a lost opportunity, and what a telling moment for a well-intentioned and smart police commissioner who often says the right thing but doesn't always do the right thing.
Philadelphia police recently launched a podcast, entitled "PPD Commish Chat," or Chuck Chat, if you will.
Hosted by Denise James, director of strategic communications for the PPD, it presents Ramsey discussing community relations, police accountability and the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that he co-chaired.
The latest episode got a lot of attention because at first blush it looked like a candid barbershop chat in which Ramsey was dropping truth bombs about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement while getting his hair trimmed.
"Yeah, I've got bad cops. Ain't no doubt about it," he said. "But why are you locking your car door? Why do you have alarms on your house? Why are we talking about cameras? Why are you scared to walk out at night? Is it because you're scared of the police, or because you're scared of the guy that's standing on the corner waiting for you to come by?"
Except that wasn't a spontaneous event. It was a friendly, controlled environment, where a PPD employee lobbed softballs at the commissioner. I'm not saying it was all scripted, but if all the sounds of scissors and clippers were legit, I think someone got a little too much taken off the top.
During the barbershop chat, Ramsey talked a lot about how police and community have to work together and move forward. We have to get back to basics, he said. "People don't want to interact person-to-person anymore . . . that's what being a human being is all about. I hope we don't lose that."
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