Philly cops did their homework

Barely two weeks after live footage of Philadelphia police officers beating a fleeing suspect made national headlines, the Philadelphia Police Department received praise for its handling of street protests during the Republican National Convention. We asked Lawrence Sherman, director of the Fels Center of Government and an advisor to Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, to comment:

Is the Philadelphia Police Department of the Republican protests the same one involved in the Thomas Jones incident? You bet. The difference is that the Jones incident began spontaneously, without warning, and was managed the way so many police problems are managed, by a group of unsupervised officers out in the field.

One of the most striking things about the Jones incident is the immediate effect of the supervisors’ appearance on the scene. The kicking stops the instant they arrive. That, by the way, is a sharp contrast to the Rodney King incident, in which the supervisors are videotaped standing around watching and not stopping the beating.

Now in the case of the convention, the Police Department had a very long lead time to plan for this, and you had a police commissioner who had previously dealt with a national convention when he was in New York City. That prior experience, combined with a decision to invest heavily in training officers to deal with the kinds of protesters who showed up at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last December, was very useful, I think. And the proof is in the pudding: the Philadelphia police had officers who were prepared to be restrained but also effective in terms of maintaining traffic flow and dealing with violence and vandalism.

Surprise for protesters

However, I also think that the protesters came to town expecting the same thing that happened after the World Bank protests in Washington, which was that after they were arrested, their charges were dropped. That’s clearly not the policy of Mayor Street’s administration.

There is an interesting contrast here between a big-stick policy at the moment and then no stick afterwards and a very soft policy at the moment and a very big stick afterwards. Philadelphia has clearly chosen that latter path. The long-term consequences for public respect for the police and the law will be interesting to see. But in the short run, the fact that some of the protesters were so violent that a police officer was seriously injured and could not return to work for over a week, and others confronted the commissioner with a bicycle as a deadly weapon, left the protesters at a big disadvantage in the contest for public opinion. The Philadelphia police managed to come out looking more fair and reasonable than the people they were policing, and that’s a hard thing to do.

Who’s Frank Rizzo?

That’s partly because they paid close attention to the events in Seattle and Washington, but it’s also because they had what no organization can do without, and that is the instincts of a very involved and omnipresent leader. That also explains the lack of serious unrest in the wake of the Jones beating. John Timoney had opened so many lines of communication and built so much trust, especially among the isolated and disenfranchised groups in the city, in the two years prior to the incident that they were prepared to believe him when he said there will be a full and fair investigation of the officers involved. Had he not done that homework, I don’t think anybody would have believed his claim that Frank Rizzo’s police department is going to have a full and fair investigation of any police misconduct.

What is remarkable about the last two years is that people seem to have forgotten that there ever was a Frank Rizzo, and they increasingly characterize the Philadelphia Police Department as a large agency in a big city with lots of minority and female officers, being led by a cop born in Dublin named John Timoney.

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Originally published on August 31, 2000