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Police reform, politics collide in mayor's race

The outcry over the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore has created headaches for Lynne Abraham and Jim Kenney

Under Lynne Abraham, left, the D.A.'s office was notorious for the way it handled police-involved shootings. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / FOR THE DAILY NEWS) Jim Kenney, right, has the endorsement of the FOP. (CHRIS FASCENELLI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Under Lynne Abraham, left, the D.A.'s office was notorious for the way it handled police-involved shootings. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / FOR THE DAILY NEWS) Jim Kenney, right, has the endorsement of the FOP. (CHRIS FASCENELLI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

THE POLLS and surveys tell you education is the issue that voters care about most in the mayor's race.

But the streets tell a different story. Thousands of people have marched through Philadelphia recently - to protest the police killings of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Brandon Tate-Brown in Frankford and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The outcry hasn't been just about the deaths - but for greater transparency in how police-involved shootings are investigated, and for bad cops to face meaningful discipline.

The emotionally charged issue is coming to a head just as the mayoral primary hits the final stretch, creating headaches for two of the Democratic candidates: former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and former City Councilman Jim Kenney.

At numerous candidate venues, Abraham has vowed to crack down on police corruption, citing her tough-as-nails reputation as D.A. as proof that she would be the right person for the job.

But under Abraham, the D.A.'s office was notorious for the way it handled police-involved shootings. Cases dragged for years, and information about the investigations was often hard to come by, especially for families of victims.

When Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey first took over the city's Police Department in 2008, he told the Daily News he wanted to work with Abraham to speed up the investigations, calling it a "public confidence issue."

Abraham bristled. "Nobody can tell me how quickly this can be done," she said at the time.

The family of Lawrence Allen, who was shot in the back by an off-duty police sergeant named Chauncey Ellison in 2008, learned that Abraham had declined to prosecute the cop and his girlfriend, Officer Robin Fortune, only after Ramsey told the Daily News in January 2010 that Abraham disclosed her decision to him in a letter. Her successor, District Attorney Seth Williams, later successfully prosecuted the duo.

Kenney, meanwhile, caught heat last week from Al Butler, the spokesman for state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, Kenney's chief rival in the mayoral race. He singled out John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, which endorsed Kenney.

The union - or more specifically, the arbitration process that often overturns Ramsey's dismissals - is viewed by many as an obstacle to weeding out bad cops.

"McNesby is a Rizzo throwback . . . there can't be a sea change as long as he runs Philly FOP," Butler tweeted last Tuesday.

The implication was that Kenney couldn't be trusted to bring needed reforms to the Police Department because he's backed by McNesby and the FOP.

But will it matter to voters on May 19?

"One would think it would, but I sometimes think that Philadelphia marches to a different drummer," said political analyst Larry Ceisler, who said the candidates don't seem to be engaging voters on any issues.

When Seth Williams took over the District Attorney's Office in 2010, he told the Daily News he'd fielded numerous complaints about the way Abraham handled investigations into police-involved shootings.

"The concern was that sometimes these investigations lasted longer than the Warren Commission," he said at the time.

Williams' press office declined to let him comment for this story.

"Look, we don't dog it on any cases," Abraham told the Daily News in 2008, when Ramsey floated the idea of speeding up the investigations.

"We have hundreds of cases of police discharges in this office that have to be investigated," she said. "I think these cases tend to be made to look simplistic when they're all complex. If they were all simple, we could dismiss them by the dozen, but we don't want to be wrong."

J. Whyatt Mondesire, the former head of the Philadelphia NAACP, lashed out at Abraham in 2009 when a grand jury she convened didn't charge a group of police officers who were filmed by Fox 29 beating three suspects.

"When it comes to prosecuting abusive police . . . the best that can be said of D.A. Abraham is that she has been 'AWOP,' Absent Without Prosecution," Mondesire said.

Abraham's spokesman, Sam Coleman, noted that she's the only mayoral candidate who has ever actually prosecuted a police officer.

He included references to multiple cases in which she did exactly that, including a 1992 case where she twice called for the arrest of a white sergeant, Anthony Brasten, who fatally shot a black man who had an unloaded gun; the 1998 case of Christopher DiPasquale, who was charged with voluntary and involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting an unarmed black teen, Donta Dawson; and the 2008 arrest of two cops who allegedly beat a graffiti vandal.

Coleman said Abraham also asked City Council for $600,000 in 1997 to better investigate police corruption.

Kenney's record isn't nearly as conflicted as Abraham's on the issue of police accountability.

His mayoral opponents have pointed repeatedly to comments he made in a 1997 Inquirer story, bemoaning the increasing restrictions being placed on police.

Reacting at the time to the fact that a friend's house had been burglarized, Kenney said of police: "You can't use the flashlights, you can't use the clubs on the head, you can't shoot anybody. What's next? Are we gonna hand them feather dusters?"

The FOP endorsement is the only other issue his opponents have been able to seize on.

Sen. Williams repeatedly chided Kenney when McNesby recoiled at Williams' proposal to automatically fire cops who use offensive language - including the "N" word - and not allow them to reclaim their jobs through arbitration.

In light of the chaos in Baltimore, Butler said he thought "it was a good time to remind people" of McNesby's stance, and past support of controversial cops, including those who were involved in the videotaped Fox 29 beating.

Would Williams have accepted the FOP's endorsement?

In an emailed statement, Williams said an endorsement would have meant the union believed in his plan to end stop-and-frisk and impose a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech.

"It is clear, after some of Mr. McNesby's remarks, that he and I have major disagreements on fundamental issues as their views are much more consistent with those of Mr. Kenney," he said.

McNesby said the FOP "doesn't represent bad cops" and ticked off references to some who have been forced to spring for their own defense lawyers after being locked up on drug offenses.

"I think Williams is just trying to throw matches and hope something lights," McNesby said.

Kenney's spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said the former councilman's thoughts about crime have evolved since he made those comments to the Inquirer almost 20 years ago.

Hitt said the next mayor will have to be able to negotiate with the FOP to make needed reforms. "If you've spent several months very publicly stating how horrible they are, it would be difficult to make the changes you need."