Why Ross must speak out when police are accused of racism

Protesters demonstrated outside police headquarters after Commissioner Richard Ross announced the firing of a white officer who fatally shot a black man.

That there are racists in the Philadelphia Police Department is no more a surprise than it would be to find bigots in any other large institution in America. But these days, they are easier to spot.

This nation’s tilt to the right has emboldened racists. They not only pop up at presidential campaign rallies; they reveal themselves daily by flying rebel flags and wearing Nazi-inspired gear to proclaim their sentiments.

A police officer whose personal car is decorated with Confederate symbols is sending a clear message that he won’t protect and serve everyone equally. Yet, a corporal in the city’s narcotics unit apparently did just that without any reprimand from his immediate supervisors.

Six black members of the unit took exception and held a news conference Wednesday to accuse their superiors, Chief Inspector Anthony Boyle and Inspector Raymond Evers, of being racists for not disciplining the corporal and denying black officers equal opportunities for overtime and assignments.

The officers’ complaints came on the heels of seemingly racist comments by Fraternal Order of Police president John McNesby, who called a largely African American group protesting the fatal shooting of a black man by a white officer a “pack of rabid animals.”

Add to that backdrop recent demonstrations by protesters who want the city to remove a statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, who earned a reputation for bigotry when he was police commissioner from 1968-71.

With accusations of racism, past and present, swirling around the police force, a statement by Commissioner Richard Ross seemed appropriate. But the city has learned that’s not his style. He isn’t ignoring the problem, but you must ask to find out what he’s doing.

Ross said Thursday that an internal affairs investigation of the narcotics unit had begun before the black officers’ news conference. He said the investigation goes beyond the racism. The black officers’  allegations included falsifying documents and evidence.

The commissioner said he would have preferred for the complaining narcotics officers to wait for the investigation to conclude. “You may have an initial perception or belief about an incident, but you have an obligation to do your due diligence and investigate it properly,” Ross said.

Asked about racism, he said: “I’m not ready, as you are kind of alluding to, to jump out and say this problem exists in the entire department. This is an issue that stems from some officers in narcotics, and so we’re going to deal with that from that standpoint.”

Ross earlier announced that Officer Ryan Pownall would be fired for not following proper procedures in the June 8 shooting death of David Jones. His decision will energize McNesby’s FOP, which blindly supports any officer accused of acting improperly and typically wins subsequent arbitration cases.

Unfortunately, Ross’ decision to fire Pownall is unlikely to move people who believe Jones’ shooting was more evidence that the police force is full of racists. Changing their minds may not be the commissioner’s job, but it wouldn’t hurt to speak out more to reassure the public that he doesn’t just listen, he takes action.

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