Retired captain’s legally worn attire draws ire of FOP

RAY LEWIS FORMER PHILADELPHIA POLICE CAPTAIN/FACEBOOK
RAY LEWIS FORMER PHILADELPHIA POLICE CAPTAIN/FACEBOOK
Posted: May 04, 2012

IT’S USUALLY TOUGH to get kicked out of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police.

You really have to screw up.

Worse than, say, the cop who allegedly beat his girlfriend with a closed fist and left her a voice mail threatening to “stomp your f---ing heart out.” Or the officer convicted of child endangerment for pointing a loaded Glock at a kid who changed the radio station in his truck at the Police Academy.

Or the cop who allegedly forced a suspect to perform oral sex on him in his police cruiser.

The local FOP, which represents about 14,600 current and retired officers, went to bat for all three of those guys in arbitration hearings. In recent years, the union also has stood by cops accused or convicted of other transgressions, including drunken driving, assault, sleeping on the job and lying during a police investigation.

But not Ray Lewis.

The retired Philadelphia police captain committed an act so heinous, so unforgivable in the eyes of the FOP, that union president John McNesby filed a rare grievance that could result in Lewis being permanently expelled from the FOP and stripped of union benefits such as life insurance and free legal assistance.

“It’s quite unusual. We had to dig into the books to see what we could do and couldn’t do,” said FOP pension director Henry Vannelli, who made the motion to refer Lewis’ case to the union’s grievance committee. “We don’t want that guy around.”

Lewis’ inexcusable offense?

He wore his police uniform to the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park last year. He wanted to show the world that the economic-equality movement is not just the pink-haired potheads and scatterbrained anarchists that some media outlets tend to focus on. He makes sure to tell people he’s retired.

“They thought everyone thought of them as dirty hippies. I made their concerns legitimate to the masses,” said Lewis, 60, explaining how he was greeted by the protesters last year. “Their gratitude was overwhelming.”

Lewis, who wore his police uniform to Southwest Philadelphia’s Elmwood Park on Tuesday for a May Day rally with Occupy Philly and labor leaders, became somewhat of an Occupy celebrity, appearing in Time magazine and on cable news.

All of which continues to infuriate McNesby and other FOP officials. The grievance committee could complete its Lewis investigation by the end of the month.

“He’s not respecting the uniform,” McNesby said. “People died for that uniform. It’s not Halloween.”

Not only should Lewis be punished by the union, McNesby said, he “absolutely” should be locked up every time he sets foot in Philly with his uniform on.

Thing is, Lewis isn’t breaking the law.

In November, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey sent Lewis a cease-and-desist letter, saying wearing the uniform could be “improper and/or illegal.” But, as Ramsey acknowledged in an interview with the Daily News this week, Lewis isn’t impersonating an officer because he’s not pretending to be a cop.

“There’s no basis to arrest him,” Ramsey said.

That’s not enough for Lewis, who worked in the department for 24 years before retiring to New York’s Catskill region eight years ago.

On Thursday, with two documentarians in tow, he was protesting outside the Police Administration Building and FOP headquarters, asking Ramsey to answer for his “thug letter” and McNesby to explain why he wants to infringe on his First Amendment rights. A retired police captain stopped by to offer his support, he said.

“Would you want me arrested if I was protesting cops losing their health care?” Lewis asked. “If I wore this uniform to a cop’s funeral or my mother’s funeral, would they want to arrest me for impersonating an officer? No, it’s because I want to hold corporations accountable.”

Ramsey and McNesby say Lewis’ message is irrelevant; they just don’t want him giving the impression that the Police Department is taking sides in the Occupy debate.

“Police officers are supposed to be impartial,” Ramsey said. “What if he was wearing his uniform to a Ku Klux Klan rally?”

But if it’s all about the uniform, why doesn’t the FOP take issue with Philadelphia lawyer Jimmy Binns? The wannabe cop has been photographed with a Glock on his hip in a look-alike Philadelphia police uniform on a Harley-Davidson that says “police” on the side and is nearly identical to those ridden by city cops.

Simple, the FOP’s Vannelli says: “Binns is a very good friend of police.”

Binns, through his CopWheels nonprofit, has donated dozens of Harley-Davidsons, bicycles and shotguns to the Police Department.

“It’s two different things altogether. You’re talking about charity work,” McNesby said of the difference between Binns and Lewis.

Nor does McNesby see a double standard in the FOP’s ostracizing a retired captain with no blemishes on his record while the union defends cops with disciplinary problems or criminal convictions.

“You’re talking about guys that are fired and get their jobs back,” McNesby said. “While they’re fired, they’re not out there wearing a uniform.”

Last month, the FOP’s grievance committee held a hearing and invited Lewis to make his case. He ignored them.

“He’s the epitome of a bully,” Lewis said of McNesby. “I was not even going to give that hearing any legitimacy by appearing. To me, it’s a disgrace.” n

Contact William Bender at 215-854-5255 or benderw@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @wbender99.

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