On a Saturday late in July, I was walking around Mantua in West Philadelphia. I saw dozens of Philadelphia police officers congregating on the street and sidewalk. The markings on a police van nearby, and the insignia on their uniforms, made it look as if they were new recruits. I was in for a surprise.
On a Saturday late in July, a comfortable, sunny day, I was walking around Mantua in West Philadelphia, trying to get a feel for the atmosphere of several blocks. I have been interested in a house for sale in the neighborhood. Around noon, just south of the intersection of 39th and Aspen streets, I saw dozens of Philadelphia police officers congregating on the street and sidewalk. They looked very young.
The markings on a police van nearby, and the insignia on their uniforms, made it look as if they were new recruits for the police force. I didn’t think much of it and continued walking towards Fairmount Avenue. Circling back, I was in for a surprise.
As I turned on Aspen from 38th Street, I saw all of those recruits marching down the center of the street, but this time in formation and flanked by a police van, chanting a “One Two Three Four — Sound Off!” military cadence, splicing in lines such as, “Get your ass off the corner!” and “Here we go again!”
The air was electrified with tension. People ran into their homes or watched guardedly from their porches as these loud, antagonistic men entered their neighborhood.
I know now that the young cadets were members of the Philadelphia Explorer Police, a training program for teenagers with an aptitude for law enforcement careers. But at the time I had no reason to think this was not a Philadelphia Police Department training exercise. These kids are meant to be learning the values associated with police training, years before they enter the police academy or FBI training, or whatever path they end up choosing.
— A. Love-Craighead (@PPDAltoviseLove) July 25, 2015
But what values were these young people being taught?
I’ve been hearing a lot about new police tactics on WHYY — how police are getting out of their cruisers, walking a beat, and building positive community relations one step at a time through respectful interactions with the people they serve. And I have seen this happening, myself. But that Saturday I was left wondering how military-style chants, marching in formation and the blatant needling of residents with shouts of “Get your ass off the corner!” square with that trend.
As I drove home, I tried to think about what had been communicated, both to the young cadets by their trainers and to the residents by the cadets. The message to the cadets seemed clear: The paradigm of the police as a military force in enemy territory is business as usual, even so normal as to be mundane — witness their shouts of “Here we go again!” To the residents: The police are not part of the community but a foreign force capable of disrupting their lives through an implication of potential violence, or, at least, disrespect.
I suppose one might argue that the police are, by nature, a paramilitary organization and that marching in public is just part of normal training. But can you imagine 40 or more people, in what look to the rest of us like police uniforms, shouting in unison on a Saturday afternoon in Chestnut Hill? Of course not. This was no friendly parade. The message seemed clear: “Remember, we’re here to keep you in line. You know who we are. You know who you are. And do not forget it.”
The “you” in question, apparently, includes terrified 8-year-olds clutching their mothers’ legs, the adult Philadelphians of tomorrow.
As I said before, I have seen more positive police interactions in recent years, and have heard lots of talk about it. But episodes like this give the impression that talk of better community relations is little more than PR, a way of getting the chattering class off their back without threatening the current system. That is what I believe I saw being impressed on those particular cadets on that Saturday morning. Things may be improving, but we still have one foot mired in the past.
“Here we go again,” indeed.
Dan Dallmann lives in Germantown, Philadelphia.
Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Police Department confirmed that the exercise in question was a Police Explorers “wake up call,” not an official police training exercise, and that it “wasn’t meant to scare or offend anyone in the community.” Police Explorers mimic real police cadet training, because many explorers hope to one day become officers. And Explorer activities are meant to get high school students excited about joining the force.
The exercise was part of a community-focused “Fun Day” in West Philly. Mantua Civic Association president De’Wayne Drummond said the neighborhood has a close and constructive relationship with the leadership of the 16th District police. A police spokeswoman would not comment on some of the details reported here, except to say that what the author describes is not what Police Explorers are supposed to do.