Philly Mayor Kenney quiet about police commissioner appointment as year draws to a close

By: - December 15, 2019 6:30 am

Vanessa Garrett Harley, Deputy Managing Director, Criminal Justice & Public Safety and Mayor Jim Kenney discuss preventive initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence and gun trauma (Philadelphia Tribune photo by Abdul Sulayman)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Mayor Jim Kenney remains mum on the appointment of a new police commissioner as his self-imposed deadline nears.

Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the Kenney administration, said in an email the mayor remained on track to name a commissioner by year’s end to head the 6,500-member police force. Kenney committed in September to select a commissioner before New Year’s Day.

But Dunn declined to provide any details about the selection process, how many applications the administration received, whether Kenney was considering keeping acting Commissioner Christine Coulter in the top job, or even what date Kenney would announce his decision, saying disclosure wasn’t fair to the candidates.

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“In fact, a public interview process would likely scare away a good number of potential candidates who would not want to endanger their current position through such disclosure,” he said.

The appointment timeline will ensure Kenney, a Democrat who was elected to a second term in November, has a police commissioner in place when he takes the oath of office on Jan. 6 along with 17 members of City Council, a new sheriff, and other newly elected officials.

Bilal Qayyum, a long-time community activist and member of Kenney’s Police Advisory Commission, said Kenney’s pick would be the most significant appointment of his new term and set the tone for the next four years.

“Police affect everything,” he said. “They affect the image of the city. … So this position right now has to give the confidence of the total Philadelphia community.”

The Black community was watching Kenney carefully on his appointment, said Solomon Jones of the Rally for Justice Coalition.

“It’s going to determine how we relate to the mayor,” he said.

A year of scandals

The new commissioner will take over a police force reeling from a year of scandals that reached the highest ranks of the department, unseated the former commissioner, and wounded police-community relations.

Outside of the department’s internal strife, the city it serves is struggling with homicide and shooting victim rates that are on track to surpass last year’s totals, which were the highest the city has seen in 10 years.

The Rally for Justice Coalition, made up of Black religious and civil rights groups in the city, continues to pressure Kenney to appoint a Black woman as commissioner in the midst of ongoing sexual harassment issues in the department.

“We want somebody who is going to be able to speak with the community around the issues that are important to us,” Jones said.

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Qayyum stopped short of advocating for a wholesale shakeup of the department due to the scandals, but he stressed the new commissioner must restore the community’s confidence and faith in the department in order to succeed.

“There definitely needs to be major changes put in place and policy positions put in place,” he said.

The mayor is looking for his new commissioner to have a few key attributes, including a commitment to community relations and community policing, Dunn said.

Kenney intends to appoint “someone who is committed to building a stronger department, bolstering morale, and addressing the workplace challenges that have existed within law enforcement for some time,” Dunn said.

The Kenney administration is paying Police Executive Research Forum, a police research and policy organization that also specializes in executive police searches, up to $34,000 to assist with the search and interview candidates.

The city’s new top cop will take over for a commissioner who embodied the department’s deeply ingrained culture that allows sexual and racial harassment to go unchecked.

Richard Ross handed in his resignation after two Black female Philadelphia police officers filed a lawsuit that alleged he and other department leaders failed to address their complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination. The lawsuit claims Ross had a love affair with one of those officers, which he has denied. Coulter also is named in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit and Ross’ resignation came as the police department was reeling from a bombshell report that exposed more than 320 Philadelphia officers who apparently made racist, sexist, violent or otherwise offensive posts on social media.

The Plain View Project’s online database showed thousands of posts made by the officers; four were fired and 11 more resigned before they could get thrown off the force, while another another 148 officers faced other undisclosed disciplinary actions.

And as the dust was clearing, District Attorney Larry Krasner charged longtime police chief inspector Carl Holmes with sexually assaulting three female police officers. Krasner said Holmes used his rank — first at the police academy, later elsewhere in the department — to present himself as a mentor to young female cops and then took advantage of them.

The Black community and police

The Black community has a troubled relationship with the police department and Coulter has not improved those ties.

Shortly after Kenney appointed Coulter as acting commissioner, a photo of her surfaced wearing a T-shirt that appeared to mock the brutal beating of Rodney King.

Coulter also recently promoted three officers accused of misconduct, including one who made posts that appeared on the Plain View Project’s database and another who was investigated by federal authorities about a decade ago for lying about evidence on warrants, and stealing from corner stores and sexually assaulting two women during raids of those stores. Coulter had the discretion to pass over the officers.

Although some cops were making strides toward repairing the department’s relationship with the Black community, the new commissioner must work to restore trust and convince more people to share tips and information with law enforcement, Black leaders said.

“The Black community still feels uncomfortable with a lot of behavior of the officers that are patrolling the community,” Qayyum said.

“The new commissioner has to have the ability to work with the police department and the community to bridge that gap — and I think it can be done if he [Kenney] selects the right person.”

Rochelle Bilal, the Democratic sheriff-elect and current head of the Guardian Civic League that represents Black Philadelphia police officers, and Black Lives Matter Philly did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

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