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Annette John-Hall: Ramsey right to act quickly

When he took office, Mayor Nutter proclaimed it was a "new day." Yesterday, that message was conveyed loud and clear.

When he took office, Mayor Nutter proclaimed it was a "new day."

Yesterday, that message was conveyed loud and clear.

With the mayor by his side, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey announced strong and swift punishment to the officers involved in the disturbing videotaped beatings of three unarmed suspects two weeks ago.

Four police officers fired - dismissed outright. Three more suspended for five to 15 days. A sergeant demoted for failing to act. Imposing what he called a "commissioner's direct action," Ramsey took charge without waiting for the usual protracted hearing.

It's almost hard to believe. We're not used to quick, decisive and weighty reprimands - not against police officers, anyway. Just like that, they shook off the lingering residue of Rizzo.

It really is a new day.

Higher expectations

The commissioner is cleaning house.

After slow-speed magnification and frame-by-frame investigation by the commissioner and the Internal Affairs unit, the video spoke even more loudly for itself.

"This is in no way a reflection of the great work being done every day by the men and women of this department. . . . That said, we have standards in this department that have to be followed," Ramsey said at Police Headquarters yesterday. "We have to be better than some of what we showed on the fifth of May."

Better than dragging unarmed men out of a car face-down. Better than brutally kicking and beating for almost a minute. Better than running between beating silos in a violent frenzy.

Better than changing their story.

Otherwise, they're no better than common criminals themselves.

Surprising quickness

Not too many people around here can remember a time when a top cop has fired members of his force with such quickness.

L. George Parry sure can't remember its happening. And as a former assistant district attorney who ran the police misconduct unit under D.A. Ed Rendell in the '80s, he's in a position to know.

"You don't see this kind of swift response," says Parry, now of the Philadelphia firm of Davis, Parry & Tyler P.C.

Parry prosecuted three officers involved in a similar case in 1981. The policemen were caught on tape - film, back then - beating and kicking Delbert Orr Africa after a shoot-out at MOVE headquarters in 1978.

But on the day Parry was scheduled to give his closing argument, Common Pleas Court Judge Stanley Kubacki acquitted the officers, saying a verdict by a jury wouldn't do much to heal the wounds of a community.

"I was greatly disappointed," said Parry, who added that the case could not be appealed. "I never questioned his honesty or sincerity, but I wished he hadn't done it."

Parry was surprised by yesterday's action by Ramsey. "It's unfortunate that this all took place in the first place, but there has to be a follow-up. However you view it, it seems to me that the mayor and the police commissioner are trying to send a clear message that this kind of behavior won't be tolerated."

The remaining 10 officers identified were cleared of misconduct and not disciplined, determined to have operated within the guidelines of force. The video I saw indicated otherwise. But maybe there's nothing in the manual that says one or two kicks for good measure rise to the level of misconduct.

Regardless, you can believe that the police union will do all it can to drag this thing out with demands for appeals and arbitration - assuring law-breaking officers a better defense than the law-abiding ones get.

But even as the process runs its course, an outside agency will be evaluating the department's use-of-force guidelines and training.

Strangely, these events all point to the kind of hopeful moment that we can build on.

Yes, hope.

Hope that Nutter will continue to talk tough and back it up by doing the right thing, no matter how popular - or unpopular- it might be.

Hope that yesterday's action will help speed up the other cases of alleged police abuse that have fallen into an investigative black hole dug by Internal Affairs.

Commissioner Ramsey understands that justice delayed is justice denied.

Let's hope District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham does, too.