To the city’s next ‘top cop’

Row of Philadelphia Police Officers
Our editor opines that it doesn’t matter who the city’s next top cop is if the mindset of a Philly police officer towards city residents doesn’t change. | PW File image

When it comes to who the next police commissioner will be in this city, the focus this week has been on what decision Mayor Jim Kenney will make. 

It’s been the prevailing headline in what’s being touted as a “tough decision.” The goal is to ensure the city’s next top cop isn’t as sheisty as his predecessor(s). But let’s keep it real, it’s not that tough of a call and to be honest, whomever Kenney picks isn’t going to vastly change much. 

One person isn’t going to right the historic wrong mindset of a police force that subconsciously believes it is above the law in its treatment of select Philadelphia residents. 

Let me preface this by saying that I’m not talking about all cops, in fact of the 6,500 or so on the city’s force, remember that only a handful were caught writing racially charged posts or using unnecessary force. I also know a number of Philly cops personally, some of whom share stories with me of life on beat and who I drink beer and watch Eagles games with on Sundays. 

They’re good people doing a dangerous job. 

But within all of that, there’s still this undercurrent of cynicism towards how they view people, and depending on the section of their beat or district, how they view an entire class of people. To be honest, when I hear their stories and hear people referred to as “ghetto trash,” or  “those welfare moms,” I realize it’s less about race when it comes to the larger majority of Philly’s finest and more about social structures designed of which in their mind are to the detriment of our society. 

“We show up at a house for a noise complaint and you got this mom with like six kids screaming in our face, using profanity, calling us pigs and we’re supposed to remain cool, calm and collected? Get the fuck outta here,” said my one cop friend, who for obvious reasons asked to remain unnamed. “Her color doesn’t matter – I’ve been screamed at by all kinds of the city’s trash, color agnostic. We don’t come to your door calling you names and cursing at you but we’re supposed to just take it? Some cops aren’t built like that – and that’s where the problem lies.”

Another example came from another police buddy who actually works in a nicer district.

She told me a story about a kid who was caught shoplifting recently from a store.  Following standard procedure, they arrest him, put him in the car and take him to the station where he’s fingerprinted and processed. 

A new commissioner isn’t going to curb the cop who automatically judges black and brown people.  They’re not going to curb how cops view illicit drug users, sex workers, the city’s homeless and people living on public assistance. That is an ingrained mindset.

“Now this kid is in our [database],” my friend said. “He may never commit another crime in his life, but he’s stained now. We pull him over five years from now, it’s there and he’s gonna be judged as a troublemaker off the bat, even if he was caught speeding. He’s not gonna get the benefit of the doubt because in our eyes he’s already a fuck up. This kid could be a college kid who turned his life around, but in the eyes of the law he’s a fuck up because he’s in the system as a deviant. It’s just never a good place to be.”

But in talking to them it’s highly obvious there’s a mentality shift that needs to happen – one that no mayor or new top cop is going to fix. The level of cynicism comes from a collective from things that are seen every day, personal political affiliations and I think in some cases, burnout. A new commissioner isn’t going to curb the cop who automatically judges black and brown people.  They’re not going to curb how cops view illicit drug users, sex workers, the city’s homeless and people living on public assistance.

That is an ingrained mindset.  

And sadly, it’s one that will always be there as long as there are police and as long as there are people they feel don’t fit society’s norm. Social activists can try to change it, we as journalists can try to call it out and force those in power to enact policies that level the playing field, but when you give someone a badge, a gun and supreme power to “call it as [they] see it,” as my one friend suggests, it’s always going to be a recipe for disaster.

I’ve always viewed cops from two separate lenses. I understand the stressors of their job but I too have also been arrested, fingerprinted and processed for complete and utter bullshit and like this kid am now listed in police databases, so it’s a kid gloves situation for me – in even the most minor of situation. 

If I could offer advice to the soon-to-be-named top cop? 

Listen to residents first and actual on-the-ground field cops second. 

Not what the police union says on behalf of cops, not what the mayor thinks about the police force, but listen to the people on patrol, the detectives, the special units et al and their view of the city and its residents.  

Do I think it’ll create change? No. But at least I know you’re listening to the right people on both sides and not just trying to appease the ones who just gave you supreme power. 

  • Kerith Gabriel's Headshot

    Kerith Gabriel is the former editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. As a routine contributor, journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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