Pleas for calm after filmed police beating in City of Brotherly Love raises riot fear

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The Mayor, clergy and black community leaders in Philadelphia broadcast appeals for calm yesterday after several dozen city police, many of them white, were caught on camera beating up a suspected car-jacker.

The Mayor, clergy and black community leaders in Philadelphia broadcast appeals for calm yesterday after several dozen city police, many of them white, were caught on camera beating up a suspected car-jacker.

The footage was filmed by a news team from a helicopter and broadcast repeatedly by American networks and on British television.

The scenes revived the incendiary images of the beating of Rodney King by white officers, whose acquittal sparked the 1991 Los Angeles riots, and recent shooting and beating incidents involving New York City police, all of which had racial overtones.

The latest instance of questionable urban policing came on Wednesday in the mainly black district of north Philadelphia after police tried to stop a car they believed to have been stolen two weeks earlier.

What started as a routine traffic stop rapidly became a chaotic gun battle, with at least one police officer shot, and a frantic car chase after the gunman left the suspect car and hijacked a police vehicle.

One witness said: "The guy jumped in the cop car and took off. He drove down this side street and across into an empty lot, then, all of a sudden there were a bunch of cops there and they all just started shooting."

The man managed to extricate himself from that tangle, before being finally corralled by several dozen police cars.

Another witness said she saw the suspect jump over a fence and raise his arms as though in surrender. Police just descended on him, she said, some of them climbing over their cars in their haste to get to him.

A third witness said: "There were so many cops on him you couldn't hardly even see the guy. They were beating and kicking him, on the head and body, but mostly to the body. Then they dragged him a little way up from where we were standing and and told us to go on home." A bystander put the number of police on the scene at close to 100.

The man, named yesterday as Thomas Jones, aged 30, was taken to hospital with serious injuries, including as many as six bullet wounds, but his life was said not to be in danger. He has been charged with numerous crimes, but police would not confirm that the gun he used had been taken from an officer who tried to arrest him. An officer shot in the thumb was "in stable condition", police said and another was treated for a bite inflicted by the suspect.

The incident comes at a highly embarrassing time for the city of Philadelphia, which hosts the Republican Party convention in two weeks. The force has tried hard in recent years to live down a reputation for heavy-handed and incompetent policing, of which the bombing of a house squatted by the alternative Move group in 1985 was the most graphic.

Commissioner John Timoney, recruited from the New York Police Department, where he was a pioneer of the tough zero-tolerance policy but subsequently became aware of its shortcomings, set out to instil a new sense of purpose and discipline in his new force.

One of his early operations was a widely publicised crackdown on drug trafficking in north Philadelphia two years ago, which passed off without the violent resistance of drug gangs many had expected.

The beating of Thomas Jones, where police were seen laying about a black suspect with undisguised fury and almost relish, is a big setback to a force whose reputation had been steadily improving.

The city mayor, who rushed back from the annual convention of the main black organisation, the NAACP, in nearby Baltimore, immediately prom-ised a formal investigation, as did Commissioner Timoney. The police chief said he found the video "troubling" and described what had happened as "a mob scene".

The Justice Department in Washington said it would also be investigating. And while there were clear similarities with the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, there were also differences.

As the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, Jerry Mondesire, noted yesterday after seeing the film: "We saw there were as many black officers kicking and punching as there were white officers."

After meetings with the mayor and the police chief yesterday morning, he and other black leaders also went out of their way to express confidence in Mr Timoney, calling him "different from past commissioners" and accepting his pledge of a "full and speedy" investigation.

Mr Mondesire said the incident was clearly "excessive use of force", and blamed a "lack of training and lack of confidence on the part of officers in a tense situation". He added: "But we also understand we cannot go around and tear up Philadelphia."