Detective Joe Murray looks like everyone else in a crowded La Colombe on a recent Thursday morning. He’s wearing a jacket and a scarf over a sweater, the uniform of the typical young Center City dweller when the weather turns hellish. And why should anyone think it weird for a police officer to be in plainclothes? SEPTA police chief Thomas Nestel told Billy Penn it’s symptomatic of the public’s view that “big walls” have been surrounding police for decades.
And right now being seen as a regular person is more important and tougher than ever for Philadelphia police officers. Ever since the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island yielded zero charges for the police who caused them, Philadelphians have taken to the streets in widespread protest.
“Some people they see these decisions,” Murray says, “and then they’re like, ‘this is bullshit.’ So who are they going to express their outrage to? You. You didn’t kill Eric Garner. But guess what? You’re a cop.”
As a result, Philadelphia’s police are looking inward for change — and they’re looking for respect from you, in the wake of these national tragedies.
#FergusonPHL, #icantbreathe, #BlackOutPhilly
The protests started just before Thanksgiving and have continued for the last month. In what was perhaps the largest since the Ferguson decision, about 1,000 people marched through Center City Sunday in what was called a Blackout Philly march to protest police brutality.
— FOCUS (@mirahminati) December 22, 2014
The protest was planned before the execution-style killings of two NYPD police officers. Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were killed, allegedly by a Baltimore man who earlier posted on social media about the revenge he planned to exact after the deaths of Brown and Garner.
“Everyone needs to calm down,” Commissioner Charles Ramsey told NBC Philly. “Things have gotten way out of hand. What we need is thoughtful discussion. Obviously there’s a need to change, a need to change by everyone.”
His words and actions carry weight locally as well as nationally. Ramsey, who didn’t respond to Billy Penn‘s request for an interview, has been tapped by Barack Obama to lead the nation’s new task force on 21st century policing. The group is expected to push for body cameras to be more widely used, and officers in Philly’s 22nd District are already testing them. Obama called Ramsey in the wake of the NYPD shootings. He expressed anger over the shootings and asked Ramsey to “engage law enforcement officials across the nation.”
“I think we’re at a tipping point,” says Nestel, who has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years. “Policing has been this strong foundation that has remained the same for decades upon decades. When there’s public concern about what the police do, the police just sort of wait it out. Public concern wanes and no real change occurs.
“I think the change is going to occur now.”
Life as a cop
It’s a cold morning in North Philly near the Cecil B. Moore area, in one of the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods. A neon-jacketed bike cop circles North 9th Street. He tells Billy Penn he doesn’t have a problem with the proliferation of protests — that it might be a productive way for people to express grief over the situations in both Ferguson and Staten Island.
The black officer said he identifies with those protestors, but feels like they don’t identify with him.
“No one’s called me a traitor,” the officer says, “but sometimes when I look at them, I feel like they think it.”
Not far away on Broad Street the same morning, a white officer is walking toward his patrol car carrying a coffee. He doesn’t want to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak about the matter, but the officer tells Billy Penn he feels the public is generalizing with the rising “war on cops.”
In some ways, he doesn’t mind.
“They can keep protesting all they want, especially on weekends,” the officer says. “That means more OT for me and a very Merry Christmas for my kids.”
— Bastiaan Slabbers (@BasSlabbers) November 25, 2014
Sgt. Eric Gripp, who works in public affairs for the Philadelphia Police, says the protests have engaged officers from nearly every district in the city and from nearly every position within those districts. He says he’s not allowed to give an estimate of the number officers who work the protests, but NBC Philly reported that the department has doled out $700,000 in overtime pay for policing the protests — so far.
Not every officer takes as cavalier an attitude toward the protests. Last week, John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, compared die-in protesters to “lynch mobs.” Murray respects the people’s right to protest and understands why they are doing it, but he worries about the erosion of trust caused by the Brown and Garner incidents.
“I don’t want to say people hate cops but like look at this shit,” says Murray, well-known for developing relationships in person and on social media, where he’s used Twitter to engage the public and even help solve crimes. “You don’t think that hurts me, what I’m trying to do? Whenever I think I’m like getting ahead and like building something great, something like this happens and it’s like back at square one. You have to rebuild the trust, rebuild the understanding. … But then you hope over those decades I’ve been doing it in West Philly that people still trust me. That they know you’re not involved in this: ‘I know you’re not like that.’ And the majority of people are like that.”
Murray also points out that Philadelphia’s protests have been notably peaceful, with the protesters and the police largely respecting one another.
“It starts at the top with Ramsey,” Murray says. “He’s like, ‘this this is the job you signed up for; this is part of your job, deal with it. If you can’t deal with it, how about you get a different job.’”
Outside of LOVE Park in early December, a protest is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Christmas Village has even canceled a parade in anticipation. But this time hardly anyone shows up — except the police officers.
It’s quite a sight. Dozens of uniformed officers are milling about among Christmas Village shoppers without any protesters to secure. One of them stands alone in a jewelry stall, tinkering on his cell phone, scaring away customers. Later, a Penn student organizer told news site The Declaration that she’d been approached by an officer in the city’s Homeland Security Department for, among other things, planning a protest at Christmas Village.
Like several officers approached by Billy Penn, many of these officers didn’t want to speak on the record for fear of retribution from the police department.
“It’s the worst, thankless job in America,” says one lingering outside the 7-11 across from Love Park. “You can quote me on that.”
How to rebuild the trust
The cameras that are being counted on to improve public trust of police are barely noticeable. Nestel wears one on his necktie. It looks almost exactly like a walkie-talkie.
SEPTA police began testing them in July, before the deaths of Garner or Brown. They’re testing this camera type, as well as a smaller one that connects by wire to an officer’s front pocket. Nestel says SEPTA police will test them for another six months or so — and he’d be shocked if they didn’t get them permanently shortly afterwards. He likes the cameras so the public can see how police officers act toward them. And so the public can see how they act toward police officers.
“I think they’re going to see things on video that will appall them,” Nestel says, “and I think there’s going to sympathy towards the police that doesn’t occur now because of the verbal abuse and the behavior they receive.”
Cameras aren’t the only change Nestel wants. To break down the wall he speaks of, he says police need greater transparency. He wants to invite people from the community to serve on police disciplinary boards. He wants police shootings to always be investigated by an independent source. And he wants police to be more active on social media.
Murray, who Nestel refers to as “the godfather of Twitter in Philadelphia,” is a third generation cop. His grandfather John Murray and his father, also named Joe Murray, worked as officers, as have many of his uncles. He likens being an officer to being in the family business.
His father still patrols Jeweler’s Row, and Murray admires how his dad keeps in touch with local businesses and is always talking to people. He has tried to emulate these actions in person and on social media. He says people who don’t live in his Southwest division even ask him for help via Twitter or email, and he’s always happy to help them solve small tasks, like looking up report numbers for their car accident.
“It honestly takes 30 seconds to look on the computer for car accidents, this location, here’s your number,” Murray says. “You know how much that just helped somebody? And what do they think? Do they think, ‘you know, cops are scumbags? No.”
If any officer still thinks of policing as a 9 to 5 gig where you can commute from the neighborhood you patrol back to the suburbs at night and forget about the job, Murray says that has to end now.
“I just think the days are over of showing up,” he says. “You can’t just show up anymore.”