When Mayor Nutter announced late last year that he was hiring D.C. Charles Ramsey as his police commissioner, I said I would keep an open mind but I was dismayed at his treatment of anti-war protesters and his frequent clashes there over civil rights. So far, I've been mostly impressed with Ramsey -- murders have dropped slightly while he's taken a tough line on police brutality.
That said, I find the detainment of four community activists in the Francisville neighborhood to be more than a little alarming. The only thing that's clear from what's come out so far is that the four oppose police surveillance cameras. What's not clear is what laws they allegedly violated -- they ultimately were not charged with anything:
Four young residents of a North Philadelphia house who circulated petitions questioning police-surveillance cameras were rousted from their home Friday and detained 12 hours without charges while police searched their house.
Daniel Moffat, 28, a co-owner of the house, said police had no warrant when they entered. The house was examined by officials from several government agencies and then shuttered by the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections.
"This leaves me homeless, without access to things I need. My whole life is disrupted," Moffat said yesterday.
The raid on the property on Ridge Avenue near Parrish Street was led by 9th District Police Capt. Dennis Wilson, who was quoted in an online story by the City Paper as saying of the residents: "They're a hate group. We're trying to drum up charges against them, but unfortunately we'll probably have to let them go."
My friend Dave Davies -- who worked hard to make sense of this complicated story -- reached Wilson, who didn't comment. Hopefully, if Commissioner Ramsey and Mayor Nutter are as serious about civil rights as they claim to be, they'll ask Internal Affairs to investigate what looks like, based on everything that's come out so far, an alarming abuse of power by the police -- the kind of thing you might expect to see, to use a popular phrase, in a Stalinist regime.
In fact, I happen to disagree with these activists; I think that police cameras -- when placed in public locations and aimed at public property -- are a legitimate way to help the undermanned cops patrol the city. But it's also a valid public issue, and those who feel the cameras are an invasion of privacy certainly have a right to express their opinion.
Or, in a free society, they're supposed to. This search and detainment is outrageous.
Ramsey needs to set the tone. When he was commissioner in Washington, that city paid out at least $14 million in scores of civil rights lawsuits, money that should have been spent fighting thugs on the street.
It's a matter of life and death that history doesn't repeat itself in Philadelphia.