Rizzo’s Reign, And Other Observations About Policing Philadelphia’s storied police commissioner, and the lessons of power

“Unfortunately, I misjudged you. You are just a stupid policeman.”

—Joseph Wiseman’s Dr. No to Sean Connery’s James Bond in Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962)[i]


Al Capone loves widows and orphans

In 1925, Al Capone gave $58,000 to the police widows and orphans’ fund of Chicago. If that did not make him the highest contributor, he certainly had to be among the top three or four. Why would a gangster, a known criminal, give such a sum of money to the police widows and orphans’ fund? Was it part of the general bribery that Capone used in order to conduct bootlegging and vice businesses? Was it a public relations stunt to alter his image in the eyes of the public as a man more sinned against than sinning? Should the police have refused or been forced to refuse Capone’s money? Did it not in some ways compromise the police to accept such money?   In any case, his donation reveals an aspect of the intricate relationship between criminals and law enforcement, how each supports the other in ways that are obvious and in ways that are peculiar.

So many cop films, so little time

It nearly goes without saying that the policeman and police work have been favorite subjects for Hollywood films. In fact, if one includes sheriffs and marshals depicted in Westerns as well as the minor or fringe role the police might play in a crime film (comedy or drama) or indeed any film with any sort of disorder in the public sphere, the police might arguably be one of the most persistently depicted professions in film.  Among the most notable police films that are not westerns are the classic police procedure film, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) or gritty, cynical procedurals like LA Confidential (1997); films about rebellious cops like Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), and Bullitt (1968); films about crooked, crazed, or disturbed cops like Detective Story (1951), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Pushover (1954), The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), Tight Spot (1955), Serpico (1973), and The Negotiator (1998). There are militarized cops in SWAT (2003), anti-Mafia Italian cops in films like Black Hand (1950) and Pay or Die (1960); black cops in Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Shaft (2000) and Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs films; and undercover cops in films ranging from White Heat (1949) and House of Bamboo (1955) to Donnie Brasco (1997).

The Glass Shield (1994), by African American filmmaker Charles Burnett, is among the more striking and unusual police films of the last 25 years. The film is about a rookie black cop working out of an all-white, racist, and corrupt precinct that framed a black man for murder. The film also features the precinct’s first policewoman, who joins forces with the black cop to expose this corruption. The film is an awkward combination of realistic social drama and cop-thriller combining elements of a film like the World War II drama of a black soldier in a white army unit like Home of the Brave with James Edwards (1949) or the Sidney Poitier integration dramas of the 1950s with the standard corruption-and-conspiracy film. While the film feels clumsy as a drama, it is still fascinating to watch, especially the portion dealing with the young, idealistic black cop’s attempts to fit into the precinct, and the racist hazing he must endure. The policewoman’s dilemma is not depicted as thoroughly or prominently, but does effectively shadow the black cop’s struggle. It is interesting that the television drama Police Woman (1974-1978), starring Angie Dickinson, still remains the most famous, the most enduring dramatic depiction of a policewoman aside from the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996). There are a few very good pieces you can consult that furnish a solid account of the history of the policewoman. The Common Reader hopes to have more about policewomen as we continue to explore policing and crime as the occasion arises in miscellaneous articles and blogs.

The reign of Frank Rizzo

He was a big, burly, gruff son-of-a-bitch. A real macho tough guy. He was antagonistic and adversarial. He always thought he could do a better job than you were doing. We had our arguments. He was a real cock-of-the-walk guy.”

—John H. Schultz, sergeant of the 19th Police District who recalls Frank Rizzo trying to push himself into that district when Rizzo was assigned to the 33rd Police District. He eventually replaced Schultz at the 19th.


During my coming of age years in Philadelphia, I lived under the reign of Frank Rizzo, for a time arguably the most famous policeman in America besides J. Edgar Hoover. When he was a patrolman smashing windows and raiding places in chic, liberal Rittenhouse Square for underage drinking, prostitution, and gambling or blind tigers in West Philadelphia, he was known as the Cisco Kid or sometimes more derogatorily as the Wop Cop. Along with teen singers Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, and Fabian, and middleweight boxing champ Joey Giardello, Rizzo became the most noteworthy, most flamboyant Italian-American in the city. As police commissioner, a position he strategized with considerable cunning to get, he became one of the leading spokesmen for law and order in the socially turbulent, violent 1960s.

During the 1964 North-Central Philadelphia race riot or urban disturbance, as it might be referred to today, he used Howard R. Leary, the man who preceded him as commissioner, as a kind of counterpoint to his bombastic tough-guy routine. Leary was a liberal; Rizzo despised him, calling him “a gutless bastard.” In Rizzo’s view, Leary would not let the police do their job to contain the rioters and stop the looting, which resulted in more disorder and more injuries. Leary held back using greater force and told his men not to molest looters. Rizzo thought the riot lasted longer than it should have, and that the use of greater force would have benefited the neighborhood and better protected the police. It is hard to say, in the aftermath, which man’s approach was right: Leary’s may have prevented greater violence by reducing the provocation of more aggressive police action; Rizzo’s was never tried, but the theory that great force shuts down resistance (what, in essence, became the Colin Powell doctrine) is not without merit. After the riot, Leary became the police commissioner of New York under reform Republican John Lindsay in 1966; he was gone into oblivion two years later. Rizzo became the police commissioner of Philadelphia in 1967, and mayor four years later. Which cop better understood his times?

From the perspective of my sisters and other young black radicals of the day, Rizzo was nothing more than a tool for capitalist reactionaries, a racist thug, head of the armed legion of the white power structure, a stormtrooper. They called him Mussolini, among the names that can be printed. Cops generally were referred to as The Man. (Sometimes powerful white men as a corporate entity were referred to in this way.) They were right: Rizzo believed that stopping crime meant breaking heads, certain heads. Of course, the black radicals and Rizzo had very different ideas of what constituted crime: on this head, they were both right and both one-eyed jacks. Once Rizzo became commissioner it seemed as if he had declared war on the black radical movement, using a network of informants and well-timed raids to harass and disrupt. (One of my aunts was approached about becoming an informant, as she was well-known in black militant circles; she proudly refused as the idea of complicity with the police seemed a fate worse than, well, nearly anything this side of the Vichy government.) Rizzo was accused of famously shaming the Black Panthers by having them strip naked on a public street when they were arrested in a raid of one of their headquarters where a cache of weapons was found. The AP photographs of naked black men appeared on the front pages of Philadelphia newspapers the next day. The truth was that it was George Fencl, a Leary guy, who was described by one black policeman as “a very outgoing and pleasing personality, a back-slapper and hail-fellow-well-met,” a negotiator-type, not confrontational, who ordered the Panthers stripped searched before the cameras. Rizzo was not even there. (Fencl’s Civil Defense Squad was the model for the FBI’s COINTELPRO.) But ask anyone in Philadelphia about this incident, and you will be told that Rizzo was there, and that he ordered it. Also, the Panthers fired on the police when they came[ii]. The radicals had shot, and shot at, more than a few white cops at this time, so police paranoia was hardly unjustified, even if one were to believe that the police were essentially the source of the problem. In any case, Rizzo’s answer was hardly likely to be a critical examination of the nature of policing in minority communities but rather to meet force with force. And coming down like a hurricane on the radicals did work in lessening assaults against police, but it did not eliminate the violence or, shall we say the need for it, but merely re-directed self-destructively within the black community itself.

What I learned growing up in Philadelphia during the time of Rizzo and listening like a fly on the wall to my stepfather and the other black cops who hung around him and visited my mother’s home regularly was that race and urban policing is a dense and complicated affair, a more intricate story than the headlines about police brutality or police corruption or police heroism offer us as outsiders to law enforcement culture.

On November 17, 1967, Rizzo, who this time was on the scene, sent his baton-swinging police into a crowd of black teens who were protesting outside the board of education, with the cry of “get their black asses,” breaking up the protest to the subsequent howls of black and white liberal execration. Rizzo denied saying anything racist and pointed out that the crowd had gotten unruly after two boys jumped on top of a car and ripped off the antenna. In some matters, it hardly mattered whether he was justified. To the white ethnics of the city, except most Jews, Rizzo was golden. He was standing up for them against the militant and complaining blacks who were never satisfied with whatever concessions they were given. He was standing up to the blacks taking over the city. And his law-and-order ferocity was the lone bulwark against white flight. The liberals recognized that fact.


Frank Rizzo, during his days as Philadelphia Mayor.

Rizzo was not without a certain rough-hewn charisma. He was big, barrel-chested, plain-spoken (for many, to the point of sounding abysmally ignorant or tactless), a man’s man. He had a swagger that was part wiseguy, part boxer, and part generalissimo. Whether he was a good cop was almost beside the point. He had an extraordinary presence as a policeman that made him the nearest thing to myth the city ever had during my lifetime. It is no wonder that Rizzo became the mayor in 1971, easily beating Republican patrician WASP W. Thacher Longstreth, an election that, for a time, returned the white ethnics to the Democratic Party. He was only the second white ethnic to be mayor. The first, James H. J. Tate, an Irish-Catholic, was his immediate predecessor. Philadelphia came late to the political power party of the white ethnic.

The reign of Frank Rizzo was also the era of the rising black political power in Philadelphia. Nowhere was the clash of racial interests more intense than the police department. In 1923, there were 268 black policemen in Philadelphia, approximately one for every 600 black persons living in the city at the time. By 1950 there were slightly more than 100 black policemen on the force. In 1954, a small number of black policemen came together to form their own organization, the Guardian Civic League, under the guise of being a social group in order not to rile the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), although there were many ethnic organizations in the department. One reason for the creation of the group, according to black police historian and former Philadelphia policeman James N. Reaves in his book Black Cops (1991), was that in the early 1950s, the number of black cops began to grow significantly, in part because a white liberal reformist regime had taken power in the city and was dedicated to hiring more blacks as policemen and partly because of greater black political agitation.

Edward Payne who nearly became the first black police commissioner in the mid-1960s launched the idea of the Guardians but its major spokesperson was former union man and NAACP Alfonso Deal who was probably the most famous black cop in the city during my youth. I heard his name a lot especially because my mother’s boyfriend at the time (who later became my stepfather) was a black cop. The Guardians, under pressure, broke up in 1954 but reorganized in 1956. Of course, the organization became exactly what the white-dominated FOP feared it would become: a grievance group for black cops whose complaints included, according to Reaves: “blacks officers not being assigned to patrol cars, not being assigned to special units, being assigned to distasteful details, being charged with offenses more often than white policemen who commit the same violation, and receiving more severe discipline than white officers.”

When Reaves was appointed by Mayor Tate in 1968 to the Police Advisory Board, a civilian review panel that looked into allegations of police misconduct against citizens, the FOP demanded that he resign as the police generally hated civilian review boards. No policemen had ever served on the board and Reaves, who was actually a former cop at this point, thought it would be good for police-community relations if one did. Moreover, he felt that no one could better articulate and protect the police position than a cop or a former cop. The white former officer who had been appointed to the Board along with Reaves did bow to FOP and resign but Reaves refused. At a contentious meeting of the FOP where Reaves presented his case to the general membership, they voted to demand his resignation from the board. The vote went purely along racial lines: the black cops supported Reaves, the whites did not. Reaves did not resign but it became moot when Tate dissolved the board in 1969 largely at the behest of Police Commissioner Rizzo. The rift between black and white cops became bigger in the early 1970s when the Guardians, one of several plaintiffs, successfully sued the department for discriminatory hiring practices including biased testing.

One might think from all of this that black cops in Philadelphia hated Frank Rizzo but that was not really the case. Their feelings were more ambivalent. Many liked him for gendered reasons, because Rizzo was, as stated earlier, a man’s man; his display of masculine bravado appealed to them. Also, Rizzo protected his men while he was commissioner and while he was mayor. He stood up for them, made sure that they received regular pay raises, and did everything he could to improve their working conditions. There was also a sense among many black cops that Rizzo was not racist, that he was tough but fair. Rizzo himself vehemently denied being racist, naturally, but there was some element of truth in his view. For instance, when a black couple moved to an all-white neighborhood and received threats, Rizzo made sure that they were protected. He did the same when some black students were threatened at a majority-white school.

Even Cecil B. Moore, the militant head of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP during Rizzo’s reign and who played the race card with Rizzo and the city as adroitly and righteously and cleverly as anyone ever did, never thought privately that Rizzo was racist. (What Moore would say publicly was another matter because Moore always thought that Rizzo was a stupid policeman, although, in their cat-and-mouse game, Rizzo more than held his own.) During Rizzo’s terms as mayor, although the hiring of blacks in the department lagged (in part, because of the hiring lawsuit) a record number of blacks were promoted and Rizzo consulted with black officers often and with warm fellowship. The liberal, Bill Green, who followed Rizzo as mayor, promised to hire and promote more blacks in the department but the Guardians grew angry with his administration’s foot-dragging on the issue. Indeed, they felt Green did nothing to improve black standing with the police department and that Rizzo had done far more. The Guardians had to boycott Green’s breakfast to honor Martin Luther King in order to force an order from him to hire more black policemen. That is more than a little counter-intuitive.

What I learned growing up in Philadelphia during the time of Rizzo and listening like a fly on the wall to my stepfather and the other black cops who hung around him and visited my mother’s home regularly was that race and urban policing is a dense and complicated affair, a more intricate story than the headlines about police brutality or police corruption or police heroism offer us as outsiders to law enforcement culture.

Editor Gerald Early

Editor Gerald Early

Here is The Common Reader’s special half-issue on policing which includes Sarah Kendzior’s update on the tragedy in Ferguson, WUSTL African historian Tim Parsons’s essay on policing in colonial Kenya, an interview with African American retired FBI agent Wayne Davis, father of WUSTL law professor Adrienne Davis, an excerpt from Terrell Carter’s memoir about being a police officer in St. Louis, and my review essay on two new biographies about famous lawmen, Eliot Ness and Bat Masterson. On the whole, we think this diversity of pieces provides a broad but penetrating look at certain issues connected with policing, testimony from people who have actually done this work, historical perspectives of it, as well a consideration of the current controversies surrounding it. We hope to feature more essays about policing (and, by extension, on crime and punishment) on our website periodically as the subject is so timely and so enduring.

[i] These lines are not in Ian Fleming’s1958 novel where Dr. No, in his long conversation with Bond, merely says at one point, “You are an obstinate man, and stupider than I had expected.”

[ii] Some have forgotten or perhaps did not know that before the current controversy with Black Lives Matter and the suggestion, sometimes veiled, sometimes not, of responding to police violence or brutality with violence, that black radical groups like the Black Panthers, the Black Unity Movement, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and even the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in its latter days, advocated something similar against the police, what might be called, to use an old radical formulation, the propaganda of the deed.



Vincent J. Cannato, The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York, (New York: Basic Books, 2001)

Thacher Longstreth with Dan Rottenberg, Main Line WASP: One Man’s Uproarious, Adventuresome Journey through the Twentieth Century, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990)

Paul Lyons, The People of this Generation: The Rise and Fall of the New Left in Philadelphia, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Books, 2003)

A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America, (Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1993)

James N. Reaves, Black Cops, (Philadelphia: Quantum Leap Publishers, 1991)