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Philadelphia Story 

Like L.A., the City of Brotherly Love had to confront cowboy cops

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
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Photo by Associated Press AP

The stomping of fugitive Thomas Jones in Philadelphia captured the attention of TV viewers across the nation last week, but the episode of high-amp policing carries special significance for Los Angeles. Four years ago the City of Brotherly Love took the course now being contemplated by the City of Angels, a compromise stab at reforming roughriding cops through the introduction of federal court supervision.

In fact, for all the notoriety garnered by the LAPD, it was Philadelphia that wrote the script for the Rampart scandal — the stealing of drug money, the frame-ups, the dozens of convicts whose sentences have to be reversed, and the millions of dollars in civil damages. Rogue cops at the problem precinct becoming the baddest gang in the ’hood? Old news to Philadelphians. Same plot, different characters — except for Willie Williams, who plays a cameo role (supporting actor, one could say, except that in neither original nor remake does he actually act). Even the antidote prescribed by civil rights groups — imposing computerized complaint counts to weed out “problem officers” — is straight out of the Philly playbook.

Now Los Angeles stands at a crossroads Philadelphia officials arrived at four years back. Law-enforcement credibility here is, by its own admission, in crisis. The LAPD’s failure — despite the revelations of the Christopher Commission and, later, Mark Fuhrman — to achieve meaningful change has made clear the limits of the department’s capacity to reform itself. By contrast, Sheriff Lee Baca’s bold moves to introduce civilian oversight of complaints and internal-affairs inquiries point toward â a new path. But they have found no echo in Parker Center or City Hall.

Instead, the LAPD and Chief Bernard Parks face the threat of civil rights litigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ). L.A. city leaders must soon decide whether to accept a consent decree mandating changes in police practices, or to maneuver for wiggle room, as Mayor Richard Riordan and Chief Parks prefer, with a looser “memorandum of understanding.” There’s also the hardball stance of resisting the feds, and incurring an onslaught of litigation both from the DOJ and from civil rights groups. As Los Angeles considers these options, it may prove enlightening to look back across the country to a city that’s been there before.

The Cradle of Liberty, the nation’s capital until 1800, Philadelphia remained one of America’s great cities through the middle of this century, when it was larger than Los Angeles, a center of insurance and publishing and host to two major-league baseball teams. Since then — and more sharply since the ’70s — disappearing jobs produced a declining standard of living and shrinking population. With the ascent of head-busting top cop Frank Rizzo to the mayoralty in 1972 — elected after promising to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” — both liberty and brotherly love hit the skids as well.

With their leader in the mayor’s chair, Philly’s finest had virtual carte blanche to straighten out the streets. This wasn’t always done by the manual. “Contempt of cop” — on duty or off — was often deemed an offense deserving corporal punishment. One study found the Philadelphia police 37 times more likely than New York City cops to shoot unarmed citizens leaving the scene of a nonviolent crime. In the years when the LAPD was proning out young blacks and browns by the hundred in South-Central, Philly’s cops were on the same page — going so far so often that three federal court decisions enjoined their “sweeps” in minority communities.

Free rein soon led to freewheeling corruption as well. In 1989 the department was shaken by the revelations of the “Five Squad” trial, in which six narcotics detectives were convicted of stealing drugs and extorting more than $400,000 from coke dealers in the early ’80s. The Five Squad (or “Captain’s men”) were relieved from regular schedules for aggressive, self-supervised work. This squad made the most of that liberty. “I’m not a racketeer,” one of them pleaded at his sentencing hearing.

Philadelphia’s police commissioner — as that city calls its police chief — at the time was none other than Willie Williams, who soon departed for L.A. Ineffectual there as here, Williams pledged, “This will never happen again.” Then, says attorney Alan Yatvin, “he didn’t do anything — it just went in the drawer.” Three other narcotics officers implicated and terminated won their jobs back after arbitration hearings in 1990.

Just a few years prior, Philadelphians were treated to the disastrous spectacle of the police assault on the M.O.V.E. cult. Determined to extract a clutch of dreadlocked vegetarians from a barricaded residence, police dropped a satchel of explosives from a helicopter, killing 11 (including five children) and starting a blaze that leveled 60 adjoining homes.

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