Philadelphia City Council heard testimony last week on Resolution 190622 which would authorize council to hold hearings regarding the Plain View Project database on objectionable social media posts of law enforcement officers.
According to its website, “The Plain View Project is a database of public Facebook posts and comments made by current and former police officers from several jurisdictions across the United States.” The posts pertaining to the Philadelphia Police Department were sent to police officials in February.
Councilman Derek Green began the hearing by invoking the history of the connection between the Philadelphia Police Department and the community and describing it as a “complex relationship.”
“When you think about Rizzo, MOVE, stop and frisk, and the Police Athletic League, this has been a complex relationship,” Green said. “When we had the unfortunate situation of Aug. 15, six officers were wounded, we pray for the Philadelphia Police Department. But when we have information that was revealed by the Plain View Project, we also want accountability from the police department.”
Green added that he has his own complex relationship with the police department, sharing his experiences both working with the police and being racially profiled.
“I have two uncles who served in the police department,” Green added. “I was a member of the District Attorney’s office and worked with the police department, but also once leaving the DA’s office, I was racially profiled by the police department.”
Green also expressed concern for his 18-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum and does not communicate in a traditional manner.
“I applaud the work that the police department has done over the years,” Green said. “But also as the father of a son with autism, I’m also concerned that as he is walking and leaving school, he could he possibly get into a situation or be viewed in a situation because he cannot communicate like others and have an unfortunate situation occur.”
City Council President Darrell Clarke echoed Green’s sentiment regarding the complex relationship between the police department and the city.
“I don’t think that this is different from any other large municipality,” Clarke said. “But I do like to think that the city of Philadelphia is different in that we are about solutions-based strategies. What we hope comes out of this is not simply a conversation, but that next year we can look back at this particular point and time and where we actually made changes to all aspects of the relationship between the police and its citizenry.”
Acting police commissioner Christine Coulter, who assumed her position after the surprise resignation of former commissioner Richard Ross last month, addressed a separate controversy before providing her testimony.
Recently, a photograph surfaced of Coulter wearing a T-shirt which many feel mocked the beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. The photograph appeared to have been taken sometime in the 1990s.
“At the time, I did not recognize the inference as a police officer,” Coulter said. “I should have more diligently examined the language on the shirt and should have been more careful before accepting and ultimately wearing that shirt.”
Coulter said that wearing the shirt was a bad decision and would not do so again. She also said the incident has caused hurt and damage to people and communities about whom she has always cared.
“I am profoundly sorry that anything I have done could have caused such hurt,” Coulter said.
Regarding the Plain View Project, Coulter said, “while only a small percentage of our officers were involved,” community trust in the Philadelphia Police Department has been compromised.
“It is important not just for City Council, but for the people and communities in this city to know exactly how the police department has addressed this crisis,” Coulter said, “and the action plan that we have created to address the underlying issues and help restore the trust that has clearly been broken.”
Coulter, describing the posts as “disgusting and outright appalling” and stressed the need for immediate action, explaining that the police department is developing both short-term and long-term action plans.
Coulter said the police department first became aware of “problematic social media posts” on Feb. 5, after the Public Affairs Unit was notified of the posts by the Plain View Project. On Feb. 8, the Plain View Project mailed the names of seven officers associated with the posts. On June 1, the Plain View Project identified approximately 5,000 “offensive or potentially offensive” Facebook entries posted by 328 active-duty officers. An Internal Affairs investigation was immediately initiated.
City Managing Director Brian Abernathy also testified, saying the City was doing a better job of training employees and providing an updated social media policy. Abernathy also said Mayor Kenney’s office has made diversity and inclusion a pillar of the administration, stressing that the City’s workforce more closely reflect the population it serves.
“Additionally, recognizing that leadership is derived from the rank and file, we have begun to review civil device regulation to determine if certain job descriptions and requirements inadvertently place barriers to diversity,” Abernathy said.
Councilmember Cindy Bass took exception to Coulter’s characterization of new police initiatives to combat racism as “a start,” saying that better policies should have been implemented long ago.
“This is disturbing to me,” Bass said. “Because it comes across as a new revelation to the police department that there are problems within the police department. And for the folks who live in the neighborhoods that are most affected by the comments from these officers, this is not a revelation. This is not something new for a very long time in this city.”
Bass also read from a letter she sent to the mayor addressing Coulter’s T-shirt controversy, saying the city needs a fresh start.
“In short, I do not believe that the acting commissioner can effectively manage the relationships necessary to address police and community tensions which is absolutely required of any commissioner,” Bass said. “This belief is rooted in the recently released photo from 1994 of Ms. Coulter wearing a T-shirt which reads, ‘LAPD, We Treat You Like A King.’”
Bass also said Coulter’s responses to the controversy were inconsistent.
“Based on Ms. Coulter’s contradictory statements, it is my opinion that it is inconceivable that she was unaware that the T-shirt referenced the widely publicized, brutal beating of a citizen by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991,” Bass said.
After the meeting, Green said he was looking forward to sitting down with Coulter and other members of council to ask additional questions.
“I have some questions regarding the differences in levels of suspension and other things that were not evident in her testimony,” Green said. “So I want to get more information in that regard.”
Lawrence McGlynn is a recent graduate of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where he earned a master’s degree in Journalism. For the next several months he will be reporting out of City Hall on various council and committee meetings, the city’s budget, and how these impact the daily lives of Philadelphians.
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