Black civic league backs Williams for Philly mayor, wants top cop replaced

 Mayoral Candidate State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams speaks to members and leaders of Philadelphia Black Clergy after receiving their endorsement Thursday. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

Mayoral Candidate State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams speaks to members and leaders of Philadelphia Black Clergy after receiving their endorsement Thursday. (Brad Larrison/for NewsWorks)

The Guardian Civic League, a group supporting  Philadelphia’s black police officers, wants Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey replaced.

And two leading mayoral candidates, Jim Kenney and Tony Williams, might be warming up to the idea.

That appeared clear Wednesday night when the league hosted its candidate forum, where Rochelle Bilal, who leads the group, grilled some of the candidates on whether Ramsey would be retained, or if the candidates had a successor in mind.

“I’m not gonna say I’ll fire someone. But we differ, and I don’t compromise,” said Williams, citing Ramsey’s championing of the department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which he and other candidates oppose.

Williams also mentioned his push to have a “zero-tolerance policy” against sexism, racism and homophobia, adding that saying something discriminatory once should be enough to fire a police officer.

“People think I’m pandering to black people. I’m not. I’m pandering to human beings,” said Williams, who is African-American.

When Kenney was asked if he’d keep or replace Ramey, he paused for a moment before answering.

“Can we keep it in this room?” he said.

It was then noted that a reporter was present, so he repeated what he’s said elsewhere — that if Ramsey doesn’t stick around, a replacement will be found within the police department.

Representing the rights of the city’s black officers since the 1950s, the Guardian Civic League has said Ramsey hasn’t done enough to diversity the department.

What has especially vexed the league’s Bilal are the police eligibility requirements, which Ramsey stiffened by requiring two years of college, passing a polygraph test and a valid state driver’s license.

Originally, Bilal said, Ramsey had made having a driver’s license for three years part of the eligibility criteria, but the league objected, arguing that the requirement would disproportionately affect lower-income black residents. The three-year requirement was scrapped.   

Still, Bilal said, the polygraph test is biased against blacks and mandating college credits presents another obstacle in black recruitment.

“You don’t need 60 credits to do this job. You need common sense,” Bilal said.

“I’m getting calls down at the office. And they say, ‘I don’t have the 60 credits. But I’m physically fit. I can read and write. I can run and jump,'” she said. “But because of the 60-credits situation, they can’t come on this job.”

In response, Ramsey, who is African-American, has said that he takes offense to the notion that dropping standards is necessary to enroll more minorities into the police academy. 

At the same time, Ramsey has recently come under new pressure over how the department has struggled to diversify its ranks. Philadelphia’s police force is about a third black, a percentage that has shrunken slightly since he took the post in 2008.

Ramsey has rested the blame for a lack of diversity on souring attitudes about law enforcement in minority communities with every highly publicized case of police brutality.

“There is not a day that goes by you don’t see something negative about what’s occurring in policing somewhere in the country that has an impact on young people too,” Ramsey said.

Mayoral candidates Doug Oliver and Milton Street also spoke at the forum. Lynne Abraham missed the event due to a scheduling conflict.

Following the event, the league endorsed Williams for mayor. Bilal said she’s hoping a new administration also will usher in a new police commissioner who might be more successful at making the department better reflect the community it serves.

“If they don’t replace him,” she said. “We still have to deal with him.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.