Mayoral frontrunner state Sen. Anthony Williams is taking aim at opponent Jim Kenney's relationship with the Philadelphia police, four weeks after Kenney picked up the endorsement of the city's law enforcement union.
Williams, who recently unveiled a new policing platform, said he would ensure that cops who use slurs based on race, gender or sexual identity would get shown the door, "without arbitration." He has attacked leaders who "allow police to use the 'N-word' publicly" and at a forum this morning demanded a "character clause" in police contracts to make it easier to dump racist or homophobic cops.
"As mayor, I will hold our law enforcement community to the highest professional standards including zero tolerance for the kind of hateful racist, sexist, or homophobic rhetoric that no police officer would want to characterize the Philadelphia Police Department," he said in a statement this week.
Williams also wants the other candidates to adopt his platform, including Kenney. But Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby, in an interview with the website NewsWorks last week, rejected the idea of throwing out officers for use of hate speech as "absurd," adding that "we would lose a decent amount of police" if such a policy were implemented.
The quandary for Kenney: If he agrees with Williams, he potentially alienates a sector of his political backing; if he agrees with McNesby, he could be portrayed as weak on a divisive racial issue.
The former councilman's tactic so far has been to brush off the debate as dealing strictly in hypotheticals. When it comes to dismissing a cop who uses hate speech, the former councilman says, "It depends on the circumstances."
"Any racial epithets, the N-word, [are] unacceptable, it's deplorable," Kenney said, last week. "But I'm going to have a police commissioner who's going to be able to make decisions on how to discipline people."
Williams has kept the pressure on. Last week, he read McNesby's quote aloud to Kenney at a forum hosted by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and invoked the specter of the recent South Carolina police shooting.
Kenney demurred then, saying during an awkward press scrum afterward — in which he and Williams stood shoulder to shoulder — he hadn't personally read the quote and didn't want to react to McNesby's comments.
"I want to have an opportunity to read it, to talk to him," Kenney said. "If he said it, it's unfortunate and it's wrong."
A day later, after Kenney had a chance to both read the statement and talk to McNesby, his campaign didn't sway much from the candidate's original stance.
"They spoke last night and Jim said derogatory remarks by police officers were unacceptable and McNesby agreed," Kenney spokesperson Lauren Hitt said Friday.
But should it result in immediate dismissal?
"It depends on the officer's record," Hitt said. "I'm sure Sen. Williams has said some things in the heat of the moment that were less than flattering."
Hitt also characterized the policy as "unclear," evoking a sharp response from the Williams campaign.
"It simply means we won't tolerate hate speech. Mr. Kenney should not have to think about that," said campaign spokesperson Barbara Grant.
But is Williams' plan as simple as it seems? Although he has said he wants to keep Charles Ramsey as police commissioner, Williams' campaign admitted it had not consulted with the city's top cop on the practicality of firing offensive cops.
And, legally, the mayor can't unilaterally impose contract changes, like the "character clause" without the agreement of FOP and an independent arbiter.
When asked how the Williams administration would push a "zero tolerance policy" for bigotry past a protective police union — one that has fought to reinstate cops accused of corruption, theft, domestic abuse and on-duty intoxication — his campaign was short on details.
"We're getting pretty far ahead of ourselves, so we're not going to comment on that," said Barbara Grant.
Ryan W Briggs