Jurisprudence

The Dark History Driving Police Brutality Protests In Philadelphia

The city has been gripped by protests since the killing of Walter Wallace, Jr. But the anger has deeper roots.

A line of police officers in masks behind a barrier at night.
Philadelphia police officers line up to defend a precinct from protesters. Gabriella Audi/Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, two Philadelphia police officers gunned down a 27-year-old Black man in front of his family. The killing was captured in video, which widely circulated on social media and ignited several nights of unrest in the city.

His family called 9-1-1 several times throughout the day seeking assistance with Walter Wallace, Jr. who his family says was having a mental health crisis. His mother said that she had called for an ambulance, not the police. When officers arrived, Wallace was reportedly wandering out of the house carrying a knife.

“I understand he had a knife,” the Wallace family’s lawyer Shaka Johnson said during a press conference yesterday, “that does not give you carte blanche to execute a man.”

In the following days, the city was gripped with upheaval reminiscent of last summer’s uprising in the name of another Black man who died at the hands of officers, George Floyd. This week, hundreds of protesters took to the streets demanding justice for Wallace. The mayor briefly instituted a curfew to try to stem looting and vandalism.

The shooting of Wallace didn’t surprise Mike Africa Jr., a local activist and member of the Black liberation group MOVE. “I’m never surprised when a Black person is shot by police. I’m not surprised when excessive force is used either,” he said in an interview. “Police treat Black people like Black people are not important—the racial divide and the prejudice is so apparent.”

Wallace’s death provided the spark for this latest uprising, but the Philadelphia police have provided plenty of fuel over the years. Law enforcement and the Black community in the city have a long, troubled history.

Last year an investigation by the Plainview Project revealed roughly 3000 racist Facebook posts made by over 300 city police officers. And a year earlier, a video of two Black men being arrested for sitting in a Starbucks in a tony neighborhood without ordering went viral.

Between 2010 and 2019, the city paid out nearly $40 million to settle civil suits alleging false arrest, false imprisonment, prosecutorial misconduct and overturned convictions.

These recent instances of violence and discrimination can be traced back nearly to the creation of the police department. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer historical deep dive into police brutality, in 1838, when the PPD was a mere eight years old, officers stood by and watched while a white mob ransacked a meeting of slavery abolitionists. But in the modern era, the escalation of a violent and racist policing culture can be traced back to former mayor and police commissioner, Frank Rizzo.

To many in Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo is an icon of systemic racism. The controversial former mayor and police commissioner was hugely influential during the 1960s and 1970s. His style of law enforcement is remembered as particularly violent, especially in the Black community.

Rizzo started as a rank and file officer, but quickly rose through the ranks. He became top cop in 1967. “The way to treat criminals is spacco il capo,” he said in 1977, Italian for “break their heads.”

In one instance, his officers forced members of the Black Panther Party to strip naked before handcuffing them. “They’re a little angry. They were humiliated. We took their pants off them, to search them,” Rizzo said in a 1978 documentary, Amateur Night at City Hall: The Story of Frank L. Rizzo.

His disconcerting practices did not go unchecked. The federal Department of Justice filed a civil suit against the Philadelphia Police Department in 1979 for brutality against citizens, singling Rizzo out for initiating brutality as commissioner, and ensuring that his tactics were continued as mayor. Charges included shooting nonviolent suspects; Stopping pedestrians and motorists without probable cause, then physically abusing them they protest; and physically attacking handcuffed detainees.

Recently the city has begun to reckon with his legacy. Last summer, a downtown statue of Rizzo was removed, and a mural portrait of him in the Italian Market was painted over.

“The Frank Rizzo statue represented bigotry, hatred, and oppression for too many people, for too long. It is finally gone,” Mayor Jim Kenney said last June.

In the decades since Rizzo, Philadelphia police have maintained a reputation for using brute force, particularly against Black citizens—most dramatically on display in 1985 when the department bombed an entire block in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Their target was the home of 13 members of a black liberation group, MOVE. The explosives killed 11 MOVE members and razed 61 other homes. (The Wallace family lives just a few blocks from the site of the MOVE bombing).

“Those wounds haven’t healed,” civil rights attorney David Rudovsky said. “The protocols and regulations are better but there is a real sense that [the Black community’s] being over-policed and under-policed,” that is, the police are quick to crack down on Black residents, but slow to protect them.

Africa lost several family members in that bombing, including an aunt and a cousin, and both of his parents were incarcerated from the time of his birth until 2018, both for alleged involvement in the death of an officer. Africa himself was born in a jail cell. His family history informed his path of activism.

“The system is pushing people towards revolt,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to be a revolutionary the government is pushing you towards that.”

Philadelphians have called for police oversight and reform, with mixed results. A prime example: Rudovsky’s firm and the ACLU have been in litigation with the city over its use of the “stop and frisk” policing tactic for a decade.

“The quality of stops has improved, based on what has been reported,” Rudovsky said, meaning that there have been fewer stops without justifiable cause. However, “the racial disparities have not moved.”

According to Rudovsky and the ACLU’s most recent report, Black people comprised 71 percent of all stops by police during the second half of 2019, despite making up only 44 percent of the city’s population. Further, Black residents were 50 percent more likely to be stopped without reasonable suspicion than their white counterparts.

Rudovsky said that last summer city officials agreed that these numbers represent documented racial bias. What this means for reform is unsettled, but Rudovsky said that more information should be ready to be released soon.

Since last summer, city council has passed several policing reforms including a ban on chokeholds, and a ban on tear gas against protesters—which Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said she supported. This week, a bill was introduced aimed to curb vehicle stops for “driving while Black.”

Both Mayor Kenney and Commissioner Outlaw have vowed to turn the department around. “Outlaw has said the right stuff, as has Kenney,” Rudovsky said. “But it will be a few more months until  we know what kind of reforms will be implemented.”

To Africa, the movement is just starting to take off. “I think the uprisings are going to continue,” he said. “Change ain’t going to come unless people fight for it.”