‘A slap in the face’: West Philadelphians, police decry vandalism of mural honoring slain sergeant

City officials, police officers from the 18th district, and neighborhood residents pose in front of the Sgt. Robert Wilson III mural

City officials, police officers from the 18th district, and neighborhood residents pose in front of the mural on 61st Street and Baltimore Avenue, dedicated to Sgt. Robert Wilson III. (Hannah Chinn/WHYY)

A crowd of city officials and West Philadelphians gathered Tuesday morning to condemn the recent vandalization of a mural honoring Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III, who was killed in 2015 by two gunmen while trying to stop a robbery.

On Sunday, the mural, located near the intersection of 60th Street and Baltimore Avenue, was tagged with anti-police acronyms “ACAB” (“All cops are bastards”) and “FTP” (“F— the police”). The Fraternal Order of Police is offering an $11,000 reward to anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest of the perpetrator.

The mural has since been cleaned up by the artist who painted it, but the incident has outraged Wilson’s fellow officers and members of the community, even those who are distrustful of law enforcement.

Officer Shamssadeen Baukman of the 18th District was, like Wilson, born and raised in West Philadelphia. He said the defacement of this mural is painful to people who knew the sergeant.

“It hurts because it’s like a slap in the face. He was from this neighborhood, he’s from Millick Street,” Baukman said. “And to see someone come into this neighborhood and destroy it, and doesn’t know what he’s about, is the part that’s frustrating. Not the fact that he’s a cop — the fact that all he gave up to this community.”

On March 5, 2015, Wilson was shopping for a gift for his son at a GameStop when two gunmen attempted to rob the store. Wilson attempted to thwart the robbery to protect other shoppers and was fatally shot.

Baukman said he’s been talking to people about Wilson’s role in the community, even people who, like the person who defaced the mural, might support calls to defund or abolish police. He said he can understand why many residents are frustrated by continued police brutality and the tragedy that comes with it, especially for Black people.

“I talk to people. That’s my job, that’s what I do,” he said. “Even when you’re protesting the police, I feel like you can have a dialogue. That’s the time to have the conversation — we’re right in front of each other.”

Baukman was one of about 50 people who gathered at the mural Tuesday morning, including State Sen. Anthony Williams, Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, police officers from the 18th District and older neighborhood residents. Participants called Wilson a hero and posed for a picture in front of the newly clean mural.

Cheryl Jackson, president of the Concerned Block Captains of West and Southwest Philadelphia, said that, for her, the mural’s tagging was sad and did not reflect the way everyone in the neighborhood feels about law enforcement.

The community members she works with have expressed a variety of thoughts on police officers’ actions and role in the neighborhood, Jackson said.

“You go from A to Z on that. Everybody has their opinion, and I don’t have to change them, just to listen,” she said. “But we’re a strong community. We don’t always get together when something bad happens… As block captains, we do support the 18th District, and we do the best we can.”

Major Small and Rodney Willis both grew up in Cobbs Creek. They remember playing basketball at 61st and Baltimore with Wilson, whom they called “Robby.”

“First, he gives his life, then they disrespect his mural. That’s not right at all,” Small said. “They got a tough job — they gotta watch themselves and watch out for us.”

City officials, police officers from the 18th district, and neighborhood residents pose in front of the Sgt. Robert Wilson III mural
Sgt. Robert Wilson was killed while thwarting a robbery in 2015. (Hannah Chinn/WHYY)

Small and Willis noted there were no young people from the neighborhood at Tuesday’s event, in contrast to recent protests against police brutality in the area that have drawn hundreds of young Philadelphians.

“Young people don’t like police,” Small said with a laugh. “They don’t like being told what to do!”

Willis, a father of two, had a slightly different take.

“I don’t trust the police,” he said. “My father, uncle, have a long history of law enforcement, and they’re good men. But there’s a whole other police force … because the police force is not in dialogue with young people and the community, that’s what makes the difference.”

Wilson said even the African American men in his family who were police officers “were aware that the power structure was against them. So they had to be doubly careful — no, triply careful — going into situations.”

“But they walked the community. The community knew them, they trusted them, they engaged with them. And then going back into the police overall environment, that’s where the pressure, racial, educational, comes into play.”

He said police officers need to work to build that same trust within neighborhoods and with community members.

“Talking about what needs to be done isn’t good enough. We have to actually work at it.”

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