Philadelphia’s acting police commissioner Christine M. Coulter apologized this week for allegedly unknowingly wearing a Los Angeles Police Department T-shirt that alluded to the 1991 beating of Rodney King.
“L.A.P.D. ‘We Treat You Like A King,’” the shirt reads.
The photograph of Coulter wearing the shirt is from the ’90s, but The Philadelphia Inquirer found and reported on the photograph at the end of last month.
Coulter apologized during a Sept. 10 hearing, CNN reports, saying she was “profoundly sorry” for having worn the shirt. She said she did not recognize the reference it was making to the police brutality incident that sparked riots in Los Angeles that killed dozens and injured thousands.
In 1991, Rodney King, a Black man, was on parole for robbery and led police on a high-speed chase throughout Los Angeles. He was later charged with driving under the influence. What sparked outrage was the beating by four LAPD officers, three of them white, that transpired after they pulled him over. A bystander recorded a video of the police officers kicking and beating King with batons for a reported 15 minutes. The graphic video revealed over a dozen cops gathering around, watching.
The video was broadcast into homes across the country. When the officers involved were acquitted of the relentless beating, racial tensions in Los Angeles came to their boiling point. Riots that killed at least 50 people and injured over 2,000 others erupted for five days throughout the city.
The incident spotlighted a national conversation about racism, economic disparity and police brutality against people of color that continues today. King continued on to be an activist and writer and died in 2012 of accidental drowning.
Given the prominence of King’s story, Philadelphia City Councilwoman Cindy Bass said she wrote to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney to order Coulter to step down.
Bass spoke after Coulter, saying it was “inconceivable” Coulter did not understand the double-meaning of the shirt she was wearing. However, Kenney’s spokesperson told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Kenney understood the offensive interpretation of the shirt, but believed Coulter was genuinely unaware of it.
In a statement, Kenney said the shirt “was abhorrent, wearing it was a mistake, and she took responsibility,” and that a “bad decision” Coulter made to wear the shirt 25 years ago should not overshadow her service to the department.
The Philadelphia Police Department has not been without its controversies in recent months. Coulter’s position as the acting Commissioner comes as former Commissioner Richard Ross stepped down amid claims of harassment, discrimination and retaliation at the department.
One of the cases in question involved two women, Cpl. Audra McCowan and Officer Jennifer Allen, who filed a lawsuit in July saying they had been groped and verbally harassed by male coworkers, sometimes in the presence of their supervisors. Additionally, the suit says, when the women complained, their bosses punished them. The suit says the women believe they have been denied training and promotions on account of their race and gender. McCowan is Black and Allen is Black and Hispanic.
Though Ross himself had not been accused of this harassment or other incidents of gendered or racial discrimination at the department, McCowan said in her legal complaint that she spoke to Ross about the harassment and that his only action regarding the matter was telling McCowan to tell the offending officer to stay away.
Furthermore, McCowan’s complaint alleges Ross did not act on her complaints in retribution for her breaking off a romantic relationship she had with him in 2011.
Additionally, In June, Ross took 72 officers off of active duty following the Plain View Project’s release of thousands of racist, sexist and otherwise potentially offensive Facebook posts by officers throughout the country. Many of the officers in the database were from the Philadelphia department. Last month, the commissioner announced he fired 13 of those 17 officers originally placed on administrative duty. Now, the number of suspended officers with intent to dismiss is up to 15, two more than the number Ross announced in July, The Inquirer reports. More investigations regarding social media activity remain open.
As for the T-shirt scandal, Coulter did not indicate any intention to step down, and touted her dedication to the department.
“Anybody that I hurt because of something that I did is something that will trouble me forever,” she said.
Coulter’s position is temporary until the city finds another Police Commissioner, a process the mayor’s office announced will involve both internal and external candidates, community input and the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and policy organization group.