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Editorial: Unchecked, the violence can only escalate

In the editions of The Inquirer of one week ago today, we published an article detailing the beating of Alvestus Goode a West Philadelphia service station proprietor, by seven or more Philadelphia policemen who one witness described as "playing drums" on Mr. Goode's body with nightsticks and blackjacks. It occurred in broad daylight, without provocation, with not a hint of misconduct on Mr. Goode's part and in full view of five witnesses.

That report brought to 54 the number of policemen specified in articles by Inquirer reporters Jonathan Neumann and William K. Marimow in the last two months as having physically and criminally abused 23 Philadelphia citizens.

The night after the Goode article went on newsstands, three uniformed Philadelphia policemen smashed their way through the front door of the home of Edgar do Ortiz in the 4400 block of Oriana Street, without warrant or invitation.

With no hint of illegal activity by Mr. Ortiz, a 26-year-old machinist with no criminal record, the policeman beat him, repeatedly and unrelentingly with nightsticks and blackjacks, inflicting severe injuries of his head, neck, arms, elbows, back and legs.

The article on Mr. Ortiz's beating begins on Page 1 of today's Inquirer. It speaks for itself. Like every other in the past two months, it is based on the carefully checked statements of witnesses and on medical evidence. It brings to 57 the number of Philadelphia policemen recorded on these pages as committing crimes of violence. It brings to 24 the number of victims.

Was there a connection between the police beating of Mr. Goode and that of Mr. Ortiz?

No one can determine with certainty the motivations of the policemen in either case. But there is one utter certainty. There has not been a single word of admonition, caution or even of concern spoken publicly by a single person with responsible city authority concerning the Goode case or any which preceded it. Not a single policeman has been suspended. Not a single departmental charge of misconduct has been brought.

Whatever may have been the motivation of the policemen who beat Mr. Ortiz, one thing was not on their minds:  Even a faint suggestion that their behavior would be disapproved by their superiors, right up to Police Commissioner Joseph P. O'Neill and to Mayor Frank L. Rizzo, who is not only responsible for police administration but as a career policeman runs the department firmly and sets its tone from top to bottom.

Lest any doubt arise, Mayor Rizzo told Philadelphia reporters in Rome Wednesday:  "I know every case and you're going to find out that when they give the police side, they (the critics) are all going to have to eat crow."  He called all charges of police crimes "a farce."  Then Thursday, as another article from Rome in today's Inquirer reports Mr. Rizzo extolled the virtues of police violence in cases of civil unrest. It is a bitter irony that he did so while on a religious pilgrimage – but in the eternal city which was so deeply scarred only a generation ago by Benito Mussolini's facists.

That and the silence of the police command and the record of passivity and indifference by the district attorney's office are more than failures of command leadership and of law enforcement. They add up to the effective condoning and encouragement of violence and of criminality by policemen who are predisposed to such behavior.

That there 57 Philadelphia policemen of such predisposition is now beyond dispute. How many more there are, and when they will respond to the clearly implied imperative to go out and do likewise – and to whom – is a matter of speculation which should frighten every citizen of Philadelphia.

What Mayor Rizzo, Commissioner O'Neill and the other responsible officials believe they will achieve by condoning police outlawry is open to speculation. However, every experience in the history of tyrannies declares that as criminal violence by men acting with the force and the color of the law is unchecked, it worsens and spreads.

Those who believe police violence is under control in Philadelphia are ignoring the facts. Those who believe their homes, their persons or their children or safer because police abuse other person's rights are averting their eyes from the truth. Those who believe that police violence, unchecked, will not go more and more out of control are ignoring one of history's clearest lessons.