On Wednesday, July 8, 2020, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School held the second virtual event in its summer series, A Path for Change: Policing in America, hosted by the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, in partnership with the Office of Inclusion & Engagement and the Toll Public Interest Center’s Social Justice Programs. The series is part of a yearlong colloquium, Achieving Racial Justice, previously announced by Dean Theodore Ruger, Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law, as one of many initiatives Penn Law will be implementing in the coming months “to work internally and externally against anti-Black violence and racism and to promote meaningful change toward a more just reality.”
Wednesday’s event, Structural Frustrations: Challenges to Implementing Change, was a panel discussion moderated by Executive Director of the Quattrone Center John Hollway. The panelists were Everett Gillison, Penn Law Toll Public Interest Center Practitioner-in-Residence and Former Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Chief of Staff of the City of Philadelphia; Angelica Hendricks, Policy Analyst for the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission; Charles Ramsey, Penn Law Distinguished Policy Fellow and Former Chief of the Philadelphia Police Department; and Sozi Tulante, Penn Law Lecturer, Former Philadelphia City Solicitor, and partner at Dechert LLP.
Panelists addressed the ongoing outcry for racial justice and police reform in the U.S. They pointed both to procedural deficiencies specific to the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) and to more widespread problems of community alienation as challenges that continue to make public safety elusive in American cities.
Hendricks began the conversation by cautioning that “reform done incorrectly can be more dangerous than having no reform at all. It could lead to communities believing that the problems have been solved. It could lead to a false sense of security, false sense of hope,” she said. “What I would like to do is make sure that the community is always involved in every step of every policy proposal, because there are some proposals that do more harm to the community than good.”
Ramsey and Tulante identified the enormous power of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) as a major barrier to change. “The biggest obstacle to reform in Philadelphia is the collective bargaining agreement,” Ramsey said. “It makes it very difficult to hold officers accountable. I’ve had numerous incidents where I took action against an individual only to have it overturned during arbitration. I think the union’s gotten far too strong, too powerful.” Tulante agreed that the grievance arbitration process available to officers who have been accused of misconduct was a major obstacle. “We can take up the greatest reforms in the world,” he said, “but they can’t change the culture if you have officers who are able to be reinstated” despite the fact that they are known to their superiors to be unfit. “I’ve had people that I’ve had to fire more than once or for different offenses,” Ramsey concurred, “not the same offense. I fired him on one. He came back. Did something just as bad again. I fired him again. One of them came close to coming back a third time.”
Henricks pointed out that the entire grievance process was undermined by a lack of transparency. Police Board of Inquiry hearings, she said, are supposed to be open to the public. “Anyone can try to get into the room for the hearing,” she said, “but currently the room has four chairs, and there are usually the FOP representatives there, a department advocate, and the officers being accused of misconduct. So there is not adequate access to that hearing before an arbitration even begins.”
Gillison observed that reform initiatives dreamed up by one mayor or police commissioner are often not taken up by subsequent administrations, making it difficult to effect enduring change. “I keep thinking,” he said, “that this has to come out of the community—what they want and see in the officers and what they want to see in their public safety.”
Hendricks and Ramsey advanced competing visions of who should ultimately be considered responsible for public safety, with Henricks arguing that police legitimacy itself was to blame for violence in cities, while Ramsey said that the time had come for communities to take responsibility for themselves.
“The research shows that what is most correlated with urban violence is not unemployment. It’s not education. Is not even poverty. It is police legitimacy,” Henricks said.
“This stuff about blaming somebody else for everything is wrong in the community?” Ramsey scoffed, “I’m sorry. I stopped buying that a long time ago. The only people who are gonna save the community are the people in the community. Nobody’s gonna come. Cavalry’s not gonna come charging over the hill to save you. I appreciate studies, and I realize everybody here is very well educated. I guess I just got too much street in me. Police legitimacy is behind one guy in a community shooting, another guy in a community? I don’t get it. You can’t solve a crime if you don’t have witnesses, if you don’t have evidence. And very rarely is there a case, a shooting or homicide where nobody knows who did it at all. Well, you go out and start canvassing an area and you try to get people to come forward and you get crickets. Then later they say, that the police aren’t going to solve the crime. Communities have to step up right now. I don’t see it.”
“Just a couple of months ago,” Henricks countered, “City Council Member Kenyatta Johnson held a hearing on the victims of violence, and there were several individuals there who testified that they were a witness to a shooting or witness to a homicide, and they felt as if the local police department did not protect them. One woman in particular talked about how her daughter was a witness and she asked for protection. They weren’t moved. She felt scared to bring her daughter to court. They weren’t relocated. And then a couple of days later, four armed police barged into her house with neighbors watching and dragged her out of the house to go to court. So you have testimony like this is coming from the people. A fear that they will not be protected. The people do not trust the police department to actually solve the crime.”
Ramsey said that community policing could be a partial solution to the problem of lack of trust. “I’ve always believed in really getting to know the people in the neighborhood,” he said. “We started something two years ago where all recruits that graduate from the academy started on foot patrol in some of our most challenged neighborhoods. By walking in these neighborhoods, they learned very quickly that there were more decent, law-abiding people living there than there were criminals. But if you’re in that police car going from one nine-one-one call to the next, you start to get this perception that there’s crime all around. It’s easy to fall into that trap if you don’t make an effort to get to know the difference between a basketball team standing on a corner waiting for a bus as opposed to gang members or a drug dealer standing around on a corner.”
Ramsey also acknowledged that more attention needs to be paid to police officers’ mental health. “With the constant exposure to trauma over the years, it’s easy to become jaded if you’re not careful,” he said. “It’s easy to develop that fear. We don’t do a very good job in policing of dealing with it, but there needs to be regular mental health checkups for cops. We don’t talk about it, but it’s real. You become hypervigilant because you think there’s always danger all around you. We don’t take care of our people from that standpoint. I really do think that’s a strong reason why we have some of the problems that we have.”
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This article was recommended for further reading by our panelist Anjelica Hendricks. The research discusses the need to focus on police legitimacy.
The first virtual event in the summer series, A Path for Change: Policing in America, was held on Wednesday June 24, 2020. This event, Beyond Reform: Reenvisioning the Role of Police, was a panel discussion moderated by George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dorothy Roberts. The panelists were Amna Akbar, Associate Professor of Law at The Ohio State University; Monica C. Bell, Associate Professor of Law and Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University; and Jocelyn Simonson, Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.