Philly panel discussion indicates restoring trust between community, cops will be long process

 Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (left) speaks at a panel discussion with (from left) Baltimore Pastor Joshua Smith and Esperanza President and CEO the Rev. Luis Cortes. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey (left) speaks at a panel discussion with (from left) Baltimore Pastor Joshua Smith and Esperanza President and CEO the Rev. Luis Cortes. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The deaths of young men of color at the hands of police officers and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement have exposed the tense relationship between law enforcement and communities around the country.

A panel discussion Thursday with Philadelphia’s top police official underscored that mending that relationship is still a ways off.

The panel was hosted by Esperanza, the Philadelphia-based network of Hispanic evangelical faith groups, as part of its annual conference for community leaders. The topic was how churches could help bridge the widening gap between police and communities.

It was clear the speakers had a lot to get off their chests, including Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who announced his retirement earlier this month after a nearly 50-year career.

The discussion began cordially, but after listening to the two pastors on the panel decry corrupt police officers and call for body cameras to record interactions with law enforcement, Ramsey appeared to snap. 

“I get a little sick and tired of all this cop-bashing,” he said.

Ramsey defended what he described as the majority of good police officers, whom he said have been getting a disproportionate amount blame in recent years.

“I haven’t heard anybody talk about the criminal element that’s … causing all the harm out here,” he said. “When you go and put a burglar alarm on your house and you apply to get a permit to carry, is it to protect yourself from the cops or from T-Bone and Boo Boo down the street?”

The audience gathered at Esperanza’s headquarters in North Philadelphia appeared to sympathize with Ramsey and applauded when he spoke.

The Rev. Luis Cortes, founder and CEO of Esperanza, pushed back. 

“When you have a bad quarterback, you lose a football game,” said Cortes. “When you have a bad police officer, lives are lost. Innocents are incarcerated. People pay a price.”

Baltimore pastor the Rev. Joshua Smith urged other clergy like himself to focus on the root causes of crime: poverty.

“Go to prison, talk to them, hear their stories,” he said. “You go to prison, you know what a lot of those guys are going to tell you? ‘I just wanted to make money, and this is the way that I thought it was. I wish I had an opportunity, I had a job.’

“Then, what is the ministry you need to start,” Smith asked the audience. 

As for how the church could bridge the gap between police and the community, that question went unanswered. 

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