Interim Philadelphia Police Commissioner Christine Coulter is under fire from some in the Black community after a photo surfaced of her that appeared to mock the brutal beating of Rodney King.
The picture of Coulter from the 1990s shows her wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “L.A.P.D. We Treat You Like a King.” She was an officer in the department at the time.
Longtime community activist Bilal Qayyum did not hesitate to link the slogan to the police assault of King. The slogan remains “provocative to Black folk,” he said.
The photo, Qayyum said, will shatter any trust Coulter has in the Black community and stymie any potential for her winning over African Americans to her policies.
“For her to have worn that T-shirt shows her mindset about her insensitivity to the Black community,” he said. “There’s no way in the world the mayor should be accepting her as our police commissioner.”
Coulter did not return calls seeking comment.
Coulter told another local news organization that her memory around the photograph was fuzzy but did not link the slogan to King’s beating.
Kenney, who appointed Coulter as interim commissioner to lead the 6,500-member department in August following the resignation of Richard Ross, maintained his support for Coulter, his spokeswoman Deana Gamble said in an email.
Gamble said Kenney “understands [the slogan] could be interpreted as a reference to Rodney King.”
“If that was the intent, [Kenney] finds the shirt to be extremely offensive,” she said.
Others in the Black community were willing to give Coulter a chance.
David Fisher, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Police Association and former Philadelphia police detective, said Coulter should be judged by the policies she puts in place rather than a T-shirt she wore decades ago.
“I’m looking for her to do things differently,” he said. “Not to come in as the status quo. Come in and make a difference.”
But Fisher suggested Coulter ought to apologize for wearing the T-shirt.
“I think that’s probably what’s needed,” he said. “That she should come out and say it was in bad taste.”
Before Kenney tapped Coulter to lead the department, Fisher had worked with her for more than eight months in an effort to increase the number of officers of color on the force.
Rodney King was the victim of a police beating on March 3, 1991, in Los Angeles. Long before recording police interactions with cellphones became commonplace, an eyewitness captured the brutal beating on videotape.
When the four city police officers abused of beating King were acquitted, riots broke out. They lasted six days, left more than 50 dead, and caused billions in damages.
Vendors in Los Angeles sold T-shirts with the slogan “L.A.P.D. We Treat You Like a King” in the wake of King’s beating.
Coulter told another news organization that she believed the photo of her wearing the T-shirt was taken at a hotel in Wildwood Crest around 1994 while she was hanging out with officers who worked in the 25th District.
Coulter said she played on a department-affiliated soccer team that competed against other departments. It was reported that Coulter believed she probably received the T-shirt at the conclusion of a game when players typically exchanged T-shirts, but she was not certain.
Micah Sims, political director of the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, said Coulter’s failure to recollect the T-shirt was not an adequate excuse for a slogan that could imply, “If you mess with us, we’re going to beat you up just like we did Rodney King.”
Sims demanded the commissioner further explain the circumstances around the T-shirt.
“That’s what irritates me,” Sims said. “Don’t play on the stupidity of everyday people. There’s no way on God’s green earth that that’s a soccer team.”
Coulter’s T-shirt episode was the latest misstep for a police department struggling to rebuild trust with the community.
“There is a level of trust that is definitely in question when it comes to the citizens of Philadelphia” and the police department, Sims said.
Last month, Ross left the department under a cloud of allegations that he failed to address complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination by two Black female Philadelphia police officers against others in the department. Ross allegedly had an affair with one of the women.
The suit named Ross, Coulter and others in the department.
While community activist Darrly Shuler had “zero reaction” to the old photo of Coulter, he had serious concerns that Coulter was appointed interim commissioner while named in the same legal action that forced Ross to resign.
In addition to the legal action, the department continues to respond to a report this year that found more than 320 Philadelphia police officers had made thousands of racist, sexist, violent or otherwise offensive posts on social media. The department was attempting to force out 13 officers over the posts after 72 were placed on desk duty.
Gun violence continues to soar this year in predominantly Black neighborhoods, with Black men the overwhelming number of victims. The city has logged 233 homicides this year as of Wednesday, up 5% compared with this time last year.
A Black commissioner has led the department for many years. The last white commissioner was John Francis Timoney, who held the top job between 1998 and 2002. Coulter, who is white, is the first female commissioner in the city’s history.
Although whites represent only 35% of the city’s population and Blacks make up 44%, the police department is majority white. Blacks account for 32% of the department’s full-time staff, whereas whites make up 53% and Hispanics and Latinos 12%.
Fisher suggested that scrutiny from the media and community will be louder against Coulter because she is white. But Coulter will face more problems than the T-shirt slogan, including as how she will address the gun violence epidemic and homicide rate, he said.
“The expectation of her is going to be higher than it was of Ross because she’s a white person,” Fisher said.
The Kenney administration was expected to provide updates on the “timing and process” of the search for a commissioner next week, Gamble said.
Bilal, the community activist, said he was eager for the Kenney administration’s search for a new commissioner to play out.
He encouraged Kenney to consider a Black woman as commissioner and possibly a candidate from outside the department who is not “tainted” by the ongoing issues plaguing the force.
“I don’t think the mayor should drag this out,” Bilal said. “I think he should make an appointment pretty quickly.”