Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said the decision to fire four officers - one an Iraq war veteran awarded a Purple Heart - for their part in the internationally televised beating of three shooting suspects this month was "one of the toughest I've ever had to make."
"It's a very difficult thing to take away a person's livelihood," Ramsey said yesterday at Police Headquarters. "It's a very difficult decision."
District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham announced that the May 5 video would be presented to a grand jury to determine whether criminal charges would be filed against the officers.
Abraham would not comment on Ramsey's action.
"I am not exercising the powers and prerogatives of a police commissioner, a mayor, a union member, other officials," she said. "I'm an elected public official; I serve the public and I'm going to try to do it fairly and impartially, in every case, including this one."
Ramsey's decision continued to draw both praise and criticism from within his ranks and from the community beyond. Immediately after he announced the disciplinary actions - firing four officers, suspending three others, and demoting a sergeant - the commissioner explained his decision in his own video, which was played at roll call Monday afternoon and yesterday.
"I did what I thought was in the best interest of the department and the city, but it is unfortunate," Ramsey said.
Community leaders from the NAACP and the Guardian Civic League, a group of black officers, commended the commissioner. The Fraternal Order of Police had sharp criticism, saying that Ramsey acted too quickly and without hearings.
The May 5 beatings occurred two days after Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was killed as he confronted three bank robbers. A suspect in that killing was still at large at the time of the beatings. The videotape showed 19 officers apprehending three suspects accused of shooting three other men in Feltonville. Ramsey punished eight of those officers for kicking and beating the suspects.
Those fired are all from the 35th District. Vincent Strain is a five-year veteran and the son of a police commander. Patrick Gallagher is a two-year veteran. Robert Donnelly and Patrick Whalen are rookies.
Whalen, a decorated Marine who served four years in Iraq and Afghanistan, was awarded a Purple Heart, among other medals. He survived a roadside bombing in which another serviceman was killed, according to FOP officials.
"Here's a guy with a Purple Heart and with two tours overseas," said John McNesby, president of Lodge 5 of the FOP, who vowed anew yesterday that the union would mount a vigorous legal challenge to have all the officers reinstated.
"They want us to go out there and stop this [crime] epidemic - and this is an epidemic - but when something shaky happens, they're going to go after us," McNesby said.
Ramsey said his decision was based on the video and subsequent interviews.
"When you look at the tape, there's a difference between the use of force and indiscriminate use of force. [For] those officers who were involved in making the arrest and used the appropriate level of force, there's no discipline," Ramsey said.
Ramsey encouraged commanders to address officers. He insisted he was not sending mixed messages to the force, a view backed by Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who oversees patrols in the South Division.
"The commissioner is not saying that we can't use force or trying to hamstring officers to prevent them from carrying out their duties," Bethel said.
Ramsey said he had accepted an invitation from the NAACP to directly answer questions.
Local NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire said he was still "stunned" by the speed with which Ramsey acted. He said Ramsey was quick to meet with him after the videotape aired. "He never ducked a call," Mondesire said.
Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, an organization of black Philadelphia officers, also hailed Ramsey. "As Philadelphia police officers, we must be held to a higher standard," Bilal said.
But one community activist who stood with Bilal at a news conference yesterday said he believed the commissioner didn't go far enough.
"They all should have been fired," said Sultan Ashley-Shah, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Action Network.
Officer Dana Gibson, who was working in the 35th District the night of the beatings, said department morale was suffering.
"We're still grieving over Sgt. Liczbinski," said Gibson, who regularly worked with the four fired officers. "They're good men. . . . I feel badly for them."