The Philadelphia Police Department has a new top cop following revelations that former Commissioner Richard Ross allegedly ignored harassment claims as retribution for a fizzled love affair with a female subordinate.
Mayor Jim Kenney announced Tuesday that Christine M. Coulter, a three-star deputy and the highest-ranking female in the department, will serve as interim commissioner while the city seeks a permanent replacement to run the force — the sixth-largest in the nation.
“She has diverse experience in patrol operations, narcotics intelligence, and investigations,” Kenney said in a statement about Coulter’s appointment.
Coulter will be the first female to serve as Philly’s top cop. She is considered a pioneering officer on the force with 30 years of experience spanning numerous elite units.
Not mentioned in Kenney’s statement was the deputy’s own disciplinary history.
In the 1990s, Coulter, then a sergeant, made front-page news for allegedly helping conceal details surrounding the beating death of a tow truck driver named Moises DeJesus. The city sought to punish Coulter with a 10-day suspension for lying to investigators about the incident, only to have disciplinary charges against her overturned through arbitration. The city later settled a wrongful death lawsuit with DeJesus’ family.
A spokesperson for Kenney would not comment on the 25-year-old case without reviewing more information, and said the mayor has full faith in the deputy’s ability to lead the department.
$250,000 legal settlement over ’94 death
In 1994, police officers responded to 911 calls concerning a drug-addled man on North Third Street, in Kensington. His parents had called first hoping for an ambulance to transport their son to the hospital. They believed he was in the throes of a cocaine overdose. But police arrived before any medical support and found the 30-year-old DeJesus in a daze.
Police said they were forced to tussle with the agitated man before loading him into a police cruiser. He was placed in one squad car, then moved to another with a protective screen.
But DeJesus dove out the window of the second vehicle, sustaining critical head injuries when his head struck the pavement nearby, according to news reports at the time.
Officers said he got up and ran down a nearby street, as more police converged on the scene. DeJesus was arrested and taken to Temple University Hospital, where police said the suspect still had to be restrained before receiving medical treatment. In a suit later filed against the city, DeJesus’ family characterized the hospital trip as a “nickel ride,” slang for a deliberately rough transport intended to cause injury to a detained suspect.
He would later lapse into a coma and die, days after contact with police.
Yet what police first painted by as a wild, drug-fueled accident — DeJesus’ nosedive had caused the head injuries that killed him, officers said — took on new dimensions when DeJesus’ neighbors began to describe a more violent confrontation. They said officers had repeatedly beaten the man on the head with nightsticks and flashlights after he shattered the glass of the second squad car.
One officer was observed striking DeJesus on the head multiple times, neighbors said. His mother said she pleaded with police to stop beating their son, who sometimes suffered from seizures caused by a metal plate in his head, implanted after he was shot by police during an earlier, unrelated car theft.
“Everybody was angry because they kept hitting him on the head,” one neighbor told the Philadelphia Inquirer shortly after the encounter. “Everybody on the block knew he had a plate in his head and could die from being hit like that.”
The department eventually determined that the officers had acted appropriately during the confrontation, but broken police guidelines by later providing shifting accounts of what had transpired. In 1996, police brass recommended all eight officers, including Coulter, for ten-day suspensions.
But, two years later, her punishment was overturned. An arbitrator berated the city for what they described as a lack of evidence about Coulter’s alleged conduct, and awarded her back pay. At least one other officer was similarly reimbursed for lost time.
The city paid DeJesus’ family $250,000 in 1997 as part of a legal settlement to resolve a lawsuit over the death. Coulter was named along with the seven other officers in the suit.
Kenney has full confidence in Coulter’s leadership
Kenney spokesperson Deanna Gamble said on Tuesday the administration stands by Coulter. Gamble described her career as “distinguished” and said the mayor is confident in her “ability to lead the department during this transitional time.”
Gamble would not offer specifics on DeJesus’ case.
“Before deciding whether or not it is appropriate to comment on an overturned suspension regarding a matter from 25 years ago, the Mayor’s Office and/or Managing Director’s Office would need to review additional facts,” Gamble wrote in an email Tuesday night.
While the case made waves in the 1990s, it did not resurface when Ross promoted Coulter to a three-star deputy in 2017. Coulter, a Northeast Philly native, got her start in the 25th District when women were scarce on the police force.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have women police officers in Philadelphia,” Coulter told CBS3 in 2017. “It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I thought this was something I would like to do.”
The rising star has experience on patrol and with narcotics intelligence and other investigative units. She has also served on the graduate program of public safety at Saint Joseph’s University.
After Ross’ resignation, news broke Tuesday that Coulter was named as one of the 11 defendants, including Ross, in the civil rights lawsuit that led to Ross’ meteoric fall from grace.
The suit implicates Ross in an alleged effort to brush sexual harassment complaints under the rug. It specifically lists Coulter among a group of supervisors who engaged in discrimination against two female officers.
Gamble, Kenney’s spokesperson, declined to elaborate on Coulter’s involvement in the allegations.
“We are still reviewing the amended complaint, not admitting liability, and are unable to comment further at this time,” Gamble said.