Rizzo, Frank Lazzaro

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Rizzo, Frank Lazzaro

(b. 23 October 1920 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 16 July 1991 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), police commissioner and mayor of Philadelphia who was both praised as an effective crime fighter and denounced for ostensibly promoting police brutality.

Frank Rizzo was the oldest of four children of Italian immigrants Teresa Erminio, a homemaker, and Raffaele Rizzo. His father began working in Philadelphia as a tailor and then joined the city’s police force for a long career as a patrolman, whetting his son’s interest in law enforcement. A restless youth, Rizzo dropped out of Southern Philadelphia High School in 1938 and joined the U.S. Navy. Rizzo’s naval career was cut short in 1939 when he was discharged for medical reasons after being diagnosed with diabetes.

Upon his return home the family moved out of its south Philadelphia immigrant neighborhood to more comfortable quarters on Mount Pleasant Avenue in northwest Philadelphia and Rizzo took a job at Midvale Steel, manufacturing war equipment. The death of his mother in 1942 devastated Rizzo, who vowed to settle down and marry a woman who could provide the kind of close-knit family home life like the one in which he had been raised. On 18 April 1942, only five weeks after his mother’s death, Rizzo married Carmella Silvestri. They had two children. Joining his father on the Philadelphia police force in 1943, Rizzo worked as a foot patrolman back in the south Philadelphia neighborhood where he had grown up. Unlike his easygoing father, who seldom made arrests, Rizzo—a 250-pound, six-foot, two-inch patrolman—was a hard-driving, career-striving, macho tough guy who was an effective street cop. Tagged “Fearless Frank” by his fellow patrolmen, he earned the second nickname of “The Cisco Kid,” a popular television cowboy of the time, and also a reputation for honesty. In 1951 Rizzo was promoted to sergeant by the reform administration of the new mayor Joseph Clark. In 1952 he was made acting captain of his unit.

Assigned to an African American district, Rizzo was criticized by black activists for his tough crackdown on the numbers rackets and street crime, but became deputy police commissioner in 1964. Two years later—after several police officers had been shot by African American activists and black power advocate Stokely Carmichael had threatened publicly “to wage the war tactics of guerrillas against the police,”—Rizzo invaded a safe house and found a cache of explosives and firearms. He was credited with putting Carmichael and the organization he belonged to, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, out of business in Philadelphia.

In 1967 the newly elected Democratic mayor James Tate decided to take the “law and order” issue away from the Republicans by appointing Rizzo as police commissioner. Rizzo, a lifelong Republican, then became a Democrat. The tough commissioner cracked down on violent groups such as the African American Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), which was stockpiling weapons and explosives for a threatened war against white America. After Rizzo’s raids RAM faded as a threat. An Associated Press photo of the bare-buttocked Black Panther revolutionaries being strip-searched by the Philadelphia police in 1970 was broadcast across the nation and had positive and negative consequences for the commissioner. Liberals and African American activists used it as an emblematic photo to confirm their charges of Rizzo as a “racist” and anti-black. On the other hand, the Republican president Richard Nixon was impressed by the Philadelphia police department’s ability to prevent the kinds of riots—accompanied by burning, looting, and vandalism—that swept Los Angeles, Detroit, and Newark during the 1960s. Nixon made a public relations trek through Philadelphia in 1968 and praised Rizzo’s record as a standard for urban police departments.

By 1970 Rizzo’s frequent appearances in Washington, D.C., and the national publicity surrounding his hard line against revolutionary violence had made him, as his biographer, S. A. Paolantonio, wrote, “America’s Number One Crime Fighter.” Both the Democratic and Republican parties maneuvered to get him on their mayoral tickets, knowing he would carry the white urban working-class vote. President Nixon had hoped to convince Rizzo to join the Republicans, but Rizzo took the Democratic nomination in 1971 and won the mayoral election over his socially prominent opponent, W. Thatcher Longstreth.

Rizzo’s first term, from 1972 to 1976, was a perilous time for urban America. White flight was spurred by the violent urban riots of the 1960s. At the same time, urban manufacturers and other businesspeople were moving to lower-tax suburbs or to the South. Philadelphia suffered massive job losses for which the mayor was blamed by his political opponents. Despite the lack of support from his own party, Rizzo handily won reelection in 1975.

In 1976 Rizzo’s second term began inauspiciously when he pushed a huge tax increase through the city council. The increase was used to pay for Rizzo’s generous wage settlements with city employees, including money spent to settle teachers’ strikes. In addition, the newly elected Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who had publicly repudiated Rizzo as a Democrat, cut Philadelphia’s share of federal general revenue sharing, putting even more pressure on the city budget. Philadelphia also lost federal jobs when Carter moved many of them south of the Mason-Dixon line. To add insult to injury, Carter and Congress refused to appropriate federal funds to make Philadelphia the “Bicentennial City” for the 1976 Independence Day celebration.

Finally, although whites and the “little people” (as Rizzo called them) felt safer with the “big man” in office, African American activists and liberals continued to criticize the mayor for his allegedly racist law enforcement policies. His critics mounted a mayoral recall campaign, which fizzled when the courts ruled against it, declaring that many of the petition signatures were forgeries or belonged to unregistered voters. Rizzo’s bad relations with the press contributed toward the expanding press image of Rizzo as “a racist and nasty bully.” Annoyed by his treatment, Rizzo filed a $6 million libel suit against the Philadelphia Inquirer, which had satirized him in a Sunday column. The suit was dismissed, but when a union struck the Inquirer and blocked the delivery of newspapers, Rizzo refused to call out the police to break the boycott and strike. As a result, the city’s press permanently turned against Rizzo.

Facing a two-term limit, Mayor Rizzo sought unsuccessfully to change the city charter so that he could run for another term. After sitting on the sidelines for a term, he ran for mayor twice in the 1980s. In 1983 he lost the Democratic primary to Wilson Goode, who went on to become the city’s first African American mayor. But Goode’s administration stumbled badly in 1985 when it bombed MOVE, a black nationalist cult group, burning down sixty-one homes and killing several of the cultists. After Goode’s inept handling of the MOVE crisis and the crack cocaine epidemic that raced through inner-city ghettos, Rizzo’s tough cop policies again won the appreciation not only of whites but also of an increasing number of African American leaders.

In the 1980s Rizzo worked hard to redeem his reputation. He ran one of the most popular call-in radio shows in Philadelphia. Like many politicians, such as Presidents Nixon and Carter, the mayor looked better in his post-public years than in his years of public service. He also worked hard with African American political leaders and clergy and persuaded many of them that they had misunderstood his law-and-order policies. Rizzo had always showed great personal warmth to his fellow cops, and now he extended that attitude to the larger African American community by marching in anti-drug and anti-crime campaigns. Rizzo ran again for mayor in 1987 and his partial redemption showed in the election returns, with Rizzo making sizable inroads in black voting districts.

Rizzo made a political comeback in 1991 when he overcame the Republican leadership’s opposition to win the party’s mayoral primary against long odds, and was set to oppose Democrat Ed Rendell. While gearing up for the campaign, Rizzo died of a heart attack. He is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania.

Controversial in life, Rizzo remains controversial in death, scorned by some for his tough law enforcement policies and revered by others for making his city a safer place to live. Rizzo was a flawed yet public-spirited giant and a populist with a warm personal touch. He was a larger-than-life presence on the urban political scene during the riot-torn 1960s and the troublesome decades that followed.

Information on Frank Rizzo prior to his death can be found in Fred Hamilton, Rizzo (1973), while S.A. Paolantonio offers a standard, authoritative biography on the mayor two years after his death in Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (1993). Ruminations on the Byzantine nature of urban Philadelphia politics can be found in Stephen Goode, “Back on the Mayor Go-Around,” Insight (22 July 1991) and a handy summary of the Rizzo story as told by Paolantonio is John J. Dilulio, Jr., “Philadelphia Story,” Washington Monthly (July-Aug. 1993).

Melvin G. Holli