Why a black woman should be Philly’s next police commissioner

(Miguel Martinez for Billy Penn)

(Miguel Martinez for Billy Penn)

In a shocking turn of events, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross resigned Wednesday, just days after Mayor Kenney called him the best police commissioner in America.

I’m saddened by it, because I respect him.

There were certainly times when I had to speak, write and protest against systemic racism in the police department. In doing so, I knew Ross thought I was often too hard on police. But over time I think he came to understand that I don’t hate police. I simply love my people. And I came to understand that beneath the blue uniform he wore for 30 years, Ross is a black man.

As such, I’m sure Ross understands the unique challenges black men face. You can’t walk in a black man’s shoes for more than five decades, as Ross has done, without learning a thing or two about struggle.

Ultimately, though, the struggle of running the police department became a heavy load, especially when personal accusations were brought against him.

Ross resigned after a black female police corporal filed a lawsuit claiming that Ross had an affair with her a decade ago. She alleged that when she broke off the affair, Ross retaliated against her and refused to help her when she was sexually harassed by another officer. A second female officer of color also claimed Ross and others in leadership did not handle sexual harassment complaints correctly.

Ross denies the allegations against him, and to be honest, I hope the women’s claims aren’t true.

But if the lawsuit shows us anything, it shows that more must be done to deal with sexual and racial harassment in the department.

In a statement, Mayor Kenney said as much. “I do not believe the Police Department has taken the necessary actions to address the underlying cultural issues that too often negatively impact women — especially women of color,” Kenney said.

I think the mayor is right. That’s why Kenney must seriously consider a black woman for the permanent role of police commissioner.

That’s the stance of the Rally For Justice Coalition — which is comprised of the NAACP, the National Action Network, Black Clergy of Philadelphia, POWER, and other groups. As a founding member of that coalition, it’s a position I share.

Certainly, I am heartened to see that Kenney’s first instinct was to pick a woman as the interim commissioner. But Commissioner Christine Coulter is named in the lawsuit as one of the people who ignored sexual harassment complaints from two women of color. That concerns me, and at the same time, it confirms that the problems in the police department go beyond misogyny and racism. The problems can be traced to the department’s culture and structure.

That’s one of the reasons Ross will be missed. While I didn’t always agree with him on police tactics — stop and frisk comes to mind — he challenged the department’s culture and structure in surprising ways.

When 328 active Philadelphia police officers posted racist or offensive material on Facebook, Ross saw to it that 72 of them were taken off the street and 13 were fired.

When a heavily armed gunman wounded six cops in an hours-long standoff, Ross helped to negotiate an end to the siege, and no one died.

That’s progress, but now that Ross is gone, we can’t allow the Fraternal Order of Police to be the loudest voice when it comes to picking his successor. The community must also be at the table.

So if the treatment of women of color is a problem in the department, as the mayor has indicated, let’s make Ross’s replacement one of the five or six black women who are currently commanders in the Philadelphia Police Department.

These women can address the issues from a perspective that’s uniquely their own. And in doing so, they can move us one step closer to making racism and sexism in policing a thing of the past.

Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 7am to 10am on 96.1 FM / 900 AM WURD Radio

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