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Cardella: Policing the Police

As the proud son of a decorated police officer, I used to contribute to the Fraternal Order of Police in dad’s memory. Now when they call, I politely hang up. The FOP under the leadership of its current president, John McNesby, has become the biggest obstacle to local police reform.

The FOP wields enormous political clout in Philly. So do police unions across the country. A recent New York Times article indicated that police unions have increased their membership by 10% nationwide since the early 1980s. That’s in stark contrast to the decline of most other unions that have seen their membership drop by 50% during that time.

Police unions have the resources to fight reform. And they do so very effectively. Favorable court rulings have made it legal for police unions such as the FOP to contribute to political action committees. But the union’s biggest weapon is in the arbitration process. If a police commissioner wants to get rid of or suspend a rogue cop, the action goes to arbitration. The rogue cop usually wins.

From 2011 to 2019 — according to an Inquirer article — 70% of Philadelphia’s police arbitration cases were reduced or overturned. The City has been forced to pay an estimated $5 million in back pay or more to police during the last decade. In an interview on CNN, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey called police unions the biggest obstacle to police reform. While protesters march for justice in cities across America, police unions undermine their cause. The real power in Philadelphia lies not with the mayor or even with the police commissioner, but with McNesby and the FOP. And with McNesby, the credo is protect the cops — all cops — right or wrong.

McNesby was a cop, with a seemingly “spotless” record, according to the Inquirer article I referenced earlier. His father was a cop. He’s served as FOP president for seven years. No one can question his effectiveness in protecting police. No one questions that the FOP is in large part responsible for cops getting better pay and working conditions. But McNesby’s first and last instinct is that cops are never wrong. His actions during recent protest demonstrations are an example.

When Joseph Bologna Jr., a 31-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, was suspended with intent to dismiss for assaulting a protester,  McNesby’s response was not only to vociferously defend Bologna, but to practically make him a hero. Several additional questionable incidents have since surfaced regarding Bologna. But McNesby went so far as to having T-shirts printed supporting the accused officer.

Di Bruno’s, a specialty food store located in the heart of the neighborhood where looting took place, responded by giving cops free food and drink. The store was then unfairly pressured by organizations supporting the demonstrations to stop the practice. The ownership of the store issued an unfortunate public apology for feeding the police. I criticized DiBruno’s for giving in. But as is typical of McNesby, he took a tough situation and made it worse. He’s threatening a police boycott of the store. Is the implication that in the future, DiBruno’s will no longer get the police protection that’s normally provided to the public? Is it really about free food for cops?

Any attempt at police reform in Philadelphia means you’re going to have to deal with McNesby and the FOP. Good luck. Some observers believe that the time is right to successfully challenge the FOP. The mayor and City Council have proposed serious police reforms that are sure to face the FOP’s opposition. In March of this year, the police contract, including the controversial arbitration process, was quietly extended for a year. The city must get significant concessions from McNesby during contract negotiations next year or all the talk about police reform in Philly will end up being just that. Talk.

In some parts of South Philly, you’re either for the police or against them. There is no gray area. SUPPORT THE POLICE is defined as support the police totally — right or wrong. And the police are never wrong. But as the proud son of a decorated police officer, I know that’s not the case — not even with supposedly “good” cops. The margin for error with police is unforgiving. One bad day and even a good cop can make a disastrous error in judgment. Cops are human. Dad told me once that if he had an argument with mom before going to work, he feared his temper would get the best of him on the beat. Sometimes it did, to his later regret. Even good cops can wield a baton too quickly.

Dad confessed to me that in 1951 when Richardson Dilworth became district attorney, frustration set in for him. Before Dilworth, it had been common practice for cops to use rubber hoses interrogating suspects or for them to kick down doors without a warrant. Dilworth — the Larry Krasner of his day — pushed back against those practices. Dad became more understanding later in his career.

Operating in a democracy, is not easy for police. It’s not supposed to be easy. In Philadelphia today, there’s much work to be done to attain social justice. Advocating for reform of the justice system does not make you anti-cop.

McNesby needs to get on board. Or be replaced.

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