Last Friday, President Trump gave a speech to a group of law enforcement officials in Long Island. Trump had a specific request: “Please don’t be too nice.” The crowd laughed and applauded. Trump called for police brutality, for “thugs” to be “thrown into the back of a paddy wagon,” as he relished the adjective rough to laud the actions of police. The request “please don’t be too nice” shocked many across the country who associate police more often with killing black and brown Americans than with being too nice.
Since that speech, many police chiefs, police departments, and law enforcement organizations from across the country have criticized Trump. Among those who defended Trump’s remarks, however, was the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the police union that endorsed Trump in the 2016 election.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross took to Twitter to push back against Trump’s remarks:
While I’d prefer to live in a city where the police commissioner gives a statement pushing back on police brutality and (implicitly) criticizing Trump, actions speak louder than words. If Ross wants to truly oppose police brutality and the type of policing that Trump is advocating for, he can prove that to us with the way he handles the investigation and aftermath of David Jones’ killing by a police officer.
On the evening of Thursday, June 8, 30-year-old David Jones was shot in the back and killed by a law enforcement officer in North Philadelphia. The officer, Ryan Pownall, shot Jones as Jones was fleeing from him. This is now the second time that Pownall shot a fleeing suspect in the back — the first time was in 2010.
A part of the incident, including the moment Pownall shot Jones, was recorded by a surveillance camera. In the video, Jones can be seen clearly running away from Officer Pownall as he is shot down. Commissioner Ross commented that the footage “gives me pause.”
Yet Ross’ “pause” is not good enough for activists or for the family of David Jones. In a protest of the Police Advisory Commission’s public meeting on July 17, Jones’ 14-year-old son told the commission, “If my father was a white man and the police officer was a black cop this would have been settled a while ago … five weeks ago!”
Multiple social and racial justice groups in the city came together to form the Coalition for Justice for David Jones. The coalition, which includes the Black Lives Matter Movement Pennsylvania Chapter, the Philadelphia Black Clergy and Vicinity, the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Action Network, and POWER Interfaith, released a list of demands to various officials in the city, including Commissioner Ross. The demands to Ross are contact cards for police officers, dashboard cameras for all cruisers by 2021, drug and alcohol testing for officers involved in shootings, counseling for witnesses of shootings, and a mediation agreement with the community. The demands to the district attorney includes empaneling a grand jury to review the killing of David Jones and determining whether charges should be brought.
This is an opportunity for Commissioner Ross to make the case that we so often hear about police. Although we saw a large crowd in Long Island applaud Trump’s call for police brutality and the violation of due process, we still hear that most police don’t support this type of rhetoric and behavior. That it is unfair to generalize a large group of public servants, who risk their lives and work long hours, just because of a few “bad apples.” If that is the case, the good apples of the police should not oppose any of the demands made by the Coalition for Justice for David Jones to Commissioner Ross. On the contrary, if fulfilled, the demands will make the jobs of police officers easier and improve their relationship with communities.
While it is a bleak time for police reform in America, this could be an opportune time for this city. As it seems more likely than not that Larry Krasner will be the next district attorney, the leadership of the Philadelphia criminal justice system could be more progressive and open to reform than ever.
Ross proved that he is willing to play defense against the bigotry from this administration. Just last week, in Philadelphia, Ross stood up against Attorney General Jeff Sessions when Sessions attacked sanctuary cities.
However, playing defense is not enough. Ross needs to play offense. Commissioner Ross could be a champion of police reform in the city during a time where it is so needed. Actions will speak louder than the words of Commissioner Ross. In his tweet, Ross told us that he does not condone Trump’s rhetoric. Now, it is time for him to show us.
Abraham Gutman is an Israeli freelance writer currently based in Philadelphia. He holds an M.A. in economics from Hunter College, where he did research on stop-and-frisk in New York City. Abraham currently works at the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University. Follow him on Twitter @abgutman.