Philadelphia downplays impact on convention

Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHILADELPHIA – A city poised to bask in the national spotlight as host of the Republican National Convention instead is grappling with far less welcome publicity after a police beating broadcast from coast to coast.

The Justice Department launched an investigation Thursday into the beating of a black carjacking suspect a day earlier.

As a TV news chopper circled overhead, a dozen police officers, black and white, swarmed 30-year-old Thomas Jones, some of them kicking and punching him as he lay on the ground. The altercation followed a stolen car chase and shootout with the suspect, who Thursday faced a raft of charges – including attempted murder, aggravated assault, robbery and auto theft.

While clearly displeased by widespread publicity over the confrontation, planners of the GOP convention due to begin in less than three weeks played down its impact.

"It happened. We're not happy about it. But I really don't think it has a bearing on the convention," said David Girard-diCarlo, one of three co-chairs of the city's host committee, Philadelphia 2000. "We have done an enormous amount of planning. I'm confident we'll do a terrific job in showcasing our city."

Yet others were keenly aware that the incident could hardly have occurred at a worse time.

"Welcome, America!" The Philadelphia Daily News blared in a front-page headline Thursday above a photograph of the confrontation. "An ugly prelude to the GOP convention."

Others shrugged off the high-profile episode.

"It's something that can happen anywhere, anytime," said cab driver Bayo Ogunkoya. "It's just unfortunate it happened in Philly."

'It's a cop thing'

Inhabitants of the blighted north Philadelphia neighborhood where the altercation took place were less focused on possible convention fallout, instead expressing outrage at what many termed a clear-cut case of police brutality.

"This was like a pit bull fight. They swarmed on him. They beat him down," said Arlene Singleton, who was sitting on her door stoop when the confrontation occurred 50 yards or so from her house.

But she and her daughter, LaToya, like others in the neighborhood of row houses dotted with shattered or boarded-up windows, declined to label the incident racist.

"It's a cop thing," LaToya Singleton said.

The mayor, local black officials and other community leaders in Philadelphia, which has often been riven by racial disputes, played down any aspect of race. They also bristled at the immediate comparisons to the 1991 Rodney King case, which touched off riots in Los Angeles after the white police officers implicated in the attack on an unarmed black motorist were acquitted.

"For people to start making comparisons to Rodney King, I just think is outrageous," Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney said on ABC's Good Morning America.

Commissioner Timoney said the suspect was "resisting throughout."

Mayor John Street urged people not to rush to judgment or engage in a "police witch hunt."

"As inflammatory as this tape might be, we have to keep in mind that the police were in the process of apprehending a criminal suspect who had resisted a number of attempts to arrest him and who had shot a police officer," the mayor said. "The tape raises some questions, but the tape also doesn't show everything that was going on."

City police and the Philadelphia district attorney's office stepped up their own investigations into whether officers used excessive force. Commissioner Timoney said the videotape would be a key piece of evidence for investigators, who would seek to interview the officers involved in the shootout and review all police logs to determine whether their actions were justified.

The police chief said one officer has been assigned to desk duty for firing his weapon during the chase, which is standard procedure during an investigation. Several others in the video will also be reassigned, he said.

Suspect in fair condition

Before the videotaped altercation, police chased Mr. Jones in a stolen car until it crashed. Police exchanged gunfire with him. Witnesses and police said Mr. Jones then jumped out of the stolen car and into a police cruiser and sped off. His capture, after his commandeered vehicle was cornered a mile later, degenerated into the melee caught on tape, where officers could be seen kicking and punching the suspect.

Mr. Jones was reported in fair condition Thursday at a local hospital, where he was being treated for gunshot wounds to the stomach and arm and other injuries. One police officer who was shot in a thumb was recovering in a Philadelphia hospital. A second officer was treated for a bite wound.

In Washington, members of the Congressional Black Caucus expressed outrage but stopped short of labeling the officers' conduct racist. They called on the House to pass long-stalled bills that would condemn police brutality, impose federal penalties on law enforcement agencies that use excessive force and expand the collection of statistics concerning racial profiling by police.

"This is the daylight Rodney King incident on the East Coast," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "What's going on there in Philadelphia was totally inexcusable. It's a very troublesome scene."

It's not the first time the actions of Philadelphia's police force have come under scrutiny. In 1998, officers were captured on a home video roughing up people at a Greek picnic. In 1985, the city came under harsh criticism for dropping a bomb on a rowhouse occupied by a black radical group known as MOVE. Use of the bomb, approved by the city's first black mayor, was supposed to flush the MOVE members out of their house. Instead, it triggered a fire that destroyed 61 homes and killed 11 people.

The latest incident occurred less than three weeks before the start of the Republican convention, where Texas Gov. George W. Bush officially will accept his party's presidential nomination.

Red-white-and-blue banners already decorate the city, and images of the Liberty Bell – the nation's symbol of freedom – are plastered on everything from souvenirs to limousines.

But convention planners said the beating is having no effect on their preparations or on the city's enthusiasm for hosting the event.

David Cohen, one of the three Philadelphia 2000 co-chairs, said he does not foresee any riots or large-scale demonstrations as a result of the incident.

"I don't think it is a blot on the city, and I don't think the lasting image of this convention is going to be that video," said Mr. Cohen, who was chief of staff to former Mayor Ed Rendell, the current national Democratic general chairman who worked to draw both political conventions to Philadelphia.

Mr. Cohen scoffed when asked whether convention planners will beef up security. "Security for what?" he asked. "For a carjacker?"

Wednesday's street brawl has no relevance to what may occur outside the convention, Mr. Cohen said. "I don't expect demonstrators to be engaged in gunfights with the police and stealing police cruisers."

But Direct Action Network, a New York group coordinating the upcoming protests, predicted the incident would have an effect. "It's going to galvanize and mobilize large numbers of people," DAN spokesman David Levy told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Security already has emerged as a concern, with about 20,000 demonstrators expected to use the convention to showcase their causes. Among them will be veterans of street violence at last year's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and raucous protests at the World Bank meeting in Washington earlier this year.

Many of the demonstrators are without housing arrangements and are expected to camp out on the streets.

Staff writer Catalina Camia in Washington contributed to this report.