Interesting Facts About Frank Rizzo: The Controversial Philadelphia Mayor

The legacy of Frank Rizzo is a mixed one. Francis Lazarro “Frank” Rizzo, Sr. (November 26, 1921 – July 16, 1991) was an American police officer and politician. He served as Philadelphia police commissioner from 1968 to 1971 and mayor of Philadelphia from 1972 to 1980. Under his watch as both commissioner and mayor in the 1960s and 1970s, gang violence and crime rates dropped.
But his methods were harsh, and he targeted minority groups especially. As a police officer, he was charged multiple times with beating crime suspects while they were in custody. The charges were consistently dismissed.
In 2017, communities all over the country were calling on local governments to remove other monuments of historical figures with racist pasts. A statue of Mayor Rizzo waving in greeting, created by sculptor Zeno Frudakis, stands in front of Philadelphia’s Municipal Services Building. The ten-foot-high statue was paid for by private contributions. In his hometown neighborhood of South Philadelphia, a mural portrait of Rizzo is found at the Italian Market on Ninth Street.
In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and the removal of Confederate statues, there were been petitions and calls to take down the Rizzo one that stands outside the city municipal building on Thomas Paine Plaza.
Rizzo joined the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1940s, rising through the ranks to become police commissioner in 1967.
Rizzo sometimes quarreled with the city’s mayor, James H. J. Tate. He was boisterous and brooding, particularly to media. A biography of Rizzo, with an introduction written by future police commissioner John Timoney, recounted: “Of one group of anti-police demonstrators, he is reported to have said, ‘When I’m finished with them, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.'” A female reporter who covered the Rizzo years, Andrea Mitchell (now of NBC News), recounted routinely brutish behavior at the force as part of a broad pattern of Rizzo bravado. Rizzo resigned from the commissioner in 1971 to run for mayor.
The following are some interesting little-known facts you should know about Frank Rizzo:
1. One of the force’s most widely publicized actions under Commissioner Rizzo was raiding the Philadelphia offices of the Black Panther Party on August 31, 1970, just after the Black Panthers had declared war on police officers nationwide and one week before the Panthers planned to convene a “People’s Revolutionary Convention” at Temple University. The officers performed a strip-search on the arrested Black Panthers before cameras, after a Fairmount Park Police Officer had been murdered. The picture ran on the front page of the Philadelphia Daily News and was seen around the world. Days later the charges against the Panthers were dropped for lack of evidence. Subsequently, the search was ruled illegal. Four people unrelated to the Panthers were ultimately found guilty of the murder.
2. Two months after being sworn in, Rizzo endorsed Richard Nixon, a Republican, for re-election as US president. In return for Rizzo’s support, the victorious Nixon granted more federal funding to Philadelphia. But the action alienated many of Rizzo’s supporters in his party. The Democratic city committee, Democrats on the city council, and party chairman Peter Camiel viewed Rizzo’s action as a betrayal.
3. An interesting feature of Rizzo’s mayoralty was the establishment and mayor sanctioning of a publicly funded “anti-defamation agency” to combat pejorative remarks about Philadelphia. The agency’s best-publicized action was the boycott of S.O.S. Soap Pads after a television commercial broadcast nationally referred to the city disparagingly. The manufacturer withdrew the offending commercial.
4. In his successful second mayoral campaign in 1975, Rizzo campaigned under the slogan, “He held the line on taxes”. Soon after the election, he persuaded City Council to increase the city’s wage tax from 3.31% to 4.31%, one of the highest in the nation. The action infuriated Rizzo’s opponents and led fiscal conservatives to join them in attempting to recall Rizzo from the mayor’s office.
5. Facing Philadelphia’s two consecutive term limit, Rizzo persuaded the Philadelphia City Council to place a charter change question on the ballot in 1978 that would have allowed him to run for a third consecutive term in 1979. In a record turnout for a Philadelphia municipal election, Philadelphians voted two to one against the change, blocking Rizzo from running in 1979.

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