The Brutal Legacy of Frank Rizzo, the Most Notorious Cop in Philadelphia History
The former police commissioner and mayor known to fellow cops as "The General" has been dead for decades, but Philadelphia is still grappling with his controversial, racially-tinged policies.
Say the name Frank Rizzo at any old-school dive bar in Philadelphia and you're liable to start a conversation. The former mayor and police commissioner who reigned through most of the 70s might be described as a "tough guy"—or maybe a "racist asshole."
Immediately recognizable from his hulking figure and spiffy threads, Rizzo traded on white working-class fears of the city's rising violent crime rate, and made no bones about his penchant for cracking heads.
"Just wait after November, you'll have a front row seat because I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot," he said of his enemies during his 1975 re-election bid.
On Wednesday, a two-hour recounting of his life (simply called Rizzo), based on a mostly friendly 1993 biography from ESPN writer Sal Paolantonio, opened after a run of sold-out previews. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and the April conflagration on the streets of Baltimore, a reexamination of the life of Philadelphia's most notorious former mayor and top cop makes sense. And even though Rizzo died in the early 90s, the city is still working its way out of the man's shadow when it comes to local policing.
The police of his day knew Rizzo as "The General," and he certainly cut a commanding figure: 6'2, 250 pounds, a 19-and-a-half inch neck (Mike Tyson, for comparison, is a 20-and-a-half). You might say his appeal was a bit like that of Donald Trump: Rizzo fashioned himself as a tough decision-maker who said what he meant, tact be damned. "[The Black Panthers] should be strung up," he once said after ordering raids on the group's offices throughout Philly. "I mean, within the law. This is actual warfare." Rizzo seemed to lean on cops as an instrument for heading off social change in a city being seismically altered by capital flight, and rising poverty. His imposing frame and brash aphorisms symbolized security.
"When Frank Rizzo walked into a neighborhood, people felt safe," remembers Michael Chitwood, a former Philly cop who served throughout Rizzo's years in power and is now Superintendent of Police in neighboring Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. "If there was an incident, Frank Rizzo was out front leading the charge. He was a combination of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. If he told you to go through a door, you wouldn't hesitate."
"Take Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, the guy in Staten Island, and you put all that shit in one city."—Michael Simmons
Rizzo joined the Philadelphia Police Department in 1943 and would go on to embrace hard-charging tactics, like raiding beatnik and gay hangouts in the 1950s. Nearly anything was justified to get a suspect in cuffs, no matter their race. But African-Americans were some of the poorest residents of the city, and that grim reality set the groundwork for Rizzo's turbulent relations with people of color, which were locked in place by a series of high-profile incidents in the 1960s.
Like plenty of American lawmen in that era, Rizzo didn't seem able, or willing, to differentiate between activism and criminality. In 1966, he organized four squads of shotgun-touting cops to raid offices and an apartment associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Philly, turning up two and a half sticks of dynamite. (SNCC activists claimed then, and reiterate today, that the explosives were planted by an informant.) In 1967, after being appointed police commissioner, Rizzo led a phalanx of officers to a school administration building where a crowd of students was protesting in favor of a black history curriculum. What happened next is in dispute, or at least the precise wording is: Local newspapers reported that Rizzo told cops, whom he suggested were being attacked, to "get their black asses."
The results were brutal, with dozens of students beaten in what observers described as a police riot. "A cop chased two black girls right outside of the window of the administration building where we were looking out," the school district's then-public relations manager remembered years later, "and just proceeded to beat the crap out of them with a nightstick." These incidents solidified Rizzo's reputation, along with a 1970 raid against the Black Panther offices that ended with the men being strip-searched before newspaper photographers. In 1967, his approval rating stood at 84 percent, suggesting both blacks and whites were OK with him; after the showdown at the school, letters to the Philadelphia Inquirer were two to one in favor of Rizzo, while letters to the African-American paper, the Tribune, were three to one against. Still, his popularity among white voters secured the police department plenty of resources: The number of city cops went from 7,000 to 9,000 during his commissionership and the budget jumped from $60 million to $100 million.
As both a police official and mayor, Rizzo traded in the kind of tough-on-crime politics that evoked a vision of society beset by shadowy figures of monstrous criminality and radicalism—concepts that often bled together in his narratives. In the face of these existential threats, the forces of law and order were justified in responding with extreme prejudice: More officers, scarier guns, bigger prisons, and stiffer sentences. "If the prisons are crowded, if we need more prisons, let's build them," Rizzo said in 1968, 20 years before George HW Bush used awfully similar language as he ramped up mass incarceration. "Most of these hardened criminals are beyond rehabilitation... They are being pampered," Rizzo added. A decade later, he bragged on national television that the department's armory had grown from a mere six shotguns when he took over as commissioner: "Now we're equipped to fight wars. We could invade Cuba and win."
After he became mayor in 1972, the Philly police department's budget climbed steadily, and in negotiations, Rizzo granted cops pay hikes and extremely generous pension plans that allowed many to retire with full benefits after 25 years. Such benefits might be easier to bear with a larger tax pool, but in a city with a shrinking population and tax base, allowing thousands of officers to retire at early at age 45 proved a heavy burden. A few years ago, Philadelphia Magazine estimated that thanks to pension requirements negotiated under Rizzo and his predecessor, James Tate, 12,000 retired officers and their beneficiaries are owed today between $1.2 and $1.7 million each.
"Rizzo kidnapped the fucking city, that's what he really did." —Larry Krasner
Meanwhile, Rizzo retained absolute control over the police department. He appointed a new commissioner, but officers who needed favors or help with a problem still knew who to go to. "When I was in trouble, I circumvented the whole world and went right to the Mayor's Office," remembers Chitwood, who was among the subjects of a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation into pervasive brutality in the department. "It was still Rizzo's police department. I went to Rizzo, and said, 'Look, I don't want to lose my job.' And Rizzo said to me, his exact words were, 'As long as I'm mayor, you'll have a job.'"
Critics are still fuming about how the police department under Rizzo was deeply politicized. "Rizzo was responsible for a lot of police frame-ups," alleges Hakim Anderson, a former SNCC activist, who recalls being arrested 17 times in a three-month period. "About every other week I was being picked up for something. They were frame-ups, never any convictions for any of the charges." Radical activists weren't the only targets: Philly police were used to intimidate Rizzo's establishment political opponents too, according to the 1977 book The Cop Who Would Be King , including the president of city council, the head of the local Democratic Party, and the superintendent of the school district.
As violent crime continued to rise, the police department reacted in kind. In 1979, the Department of Justice, in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, charged Rizzo and other city officials with allowing pervasive police abuse. They found that from 1970 to 1978, the police shot and killed 162 people. "The cops were just totally out of control," remembers Michael Simmons, an organizer with SNCC and a variety of other leftist groups who sat in at Rizzo's office to protest police brutality. "They were really beating and shooting African Americans and Puerto Ricans. It's like what's going on now, but it was all taking place in one city. Take Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, the guy in Staten Island, and you put all that shit in one city."
Rizzo's clout never stretched beyond Philadelphia, though: His higher aspirations were tarnished by a series of scandals, many linked to patronage or police brutality, and an enormous tax hike to pay for his largesse. He barely survived a recall effort and, even as his political base shrunk, tried a blatant racial appeal, encouraging residents to vote for a change in the city charter to let him serve a third consecutive term. "I'm asking white people, and blacks who think like me, to vote Frank Rizzo," he said. "I say vote white." (He lost the vote to change the term limit two to one.)
In many ways, Philadelphia is still living with Frank Rizzo's police force. Data from Governing shows that the city has the fifth highest police-officer-to-citizen ratio in the nation, and the pensions he negotiated with the police and firemen's unions remain a weight on the city's shaky finances. A report from the Department of Justice released this year found that between 2007 and 2013, the Philly police force killed people at a rate six times greater than their counterparts in New York; 81 percent of those killed were black. Scandals rock the department with disturbing regularity, but even if the commissioner wants to fire an officer, the arbitration system makes it all but impossible. The police department remains a hidebound and hugely powerful institution apart from the rest of Philadelphia, one that seems stuck in the 1970s.
"Rizzo kidnapped the fucking city, that's what he really did," says Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney who frequently sues the police department over issues of brutality and corruption. "He said, 'We're cops and we're in charge of the money, the pensions, race relations,' and he took us to the bottom of the fucking ocean. He was the strong man who dispenses with niceties like laws and constitutional protections and just gets the job done. And we still have a police department that feels they can do pretty much whatever they want. And they're right about that."
Jake Blumgart is a reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.