Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Look at Rich Costello

Richard B. Costello is the Democratic candidate for the 172nd state house, currently held by Republican John Perzel, Speaker of the House from 2003 to 2007. Those familiar with the Philadelphia political scene will remember Costello as president of the Fraternal Order of Police (Lodge #5) from 1988 to 1990 and from 1994 to 2002.

Costello is not a physically imposing man but he has a very authoritative voice. If he yelled “Stop!” most people would stop. He also sounds confident and reassuring. You can hear him talk in an introductory video on his website (www.richcostello.com) but he sounds more rehearsed than he does speaking in person. If you have a chance to talk with him or hear him speak you should.

He is a study in contrasts in a number of ways beyond the contradiction between his appearance and his voice. Unlike many police officers Costello wasn’t born blue. In the documents I reviewed, he never mentioned having relatives in the force. Also unlike many police officers his age, he graduated from college before joining the force. He was a student at St. Joseph’s University, with a 3.8 gpa majoring in political science and considering law school when, while working as a desk clerk at a Howard Johnsons, he helped the police catch someone using a stolen credit card (Bowden).

A few months after joining the force, in 1973, he was shot in the head twice while patrolling in Northeast Philadelphia (Gibbons); the shooter has never been found. The injuries have permanently affected his hearing, but not his wit or thinking. Like many people in life threatening and stressful jobs, Costello’s home life suffered. His first marriage ended and he struggled with alcoholism. After serving as recording secretary for the FOP he ran for the top job in 1988 and won. He worked at rooting out corruption and getting a good union contract signed. However, after two years on the job he was voted out:

His membership voted him out in 1990 in a bitter three-way race, reelecting former union head John Shaw. Costello says he had just spent the better part of a decade working seven-day weeks trying to uproot longstanding corruption in the FOP, only to see Shaw go right back to looting the place (for which he would be sentenced to five years in prison). During those years Costello was back in his police captain's uniform, exiled to the night shift, watching the sun rise over the Belmont plateau from a patrol car.

"I left here with nothing but my AA coin in my pocket," he said. "I'd lost my family, my youth, and everything I'd worked for here. It was a good lesson in humility."

He remembers it now as a four-year period of personal growth, capped by his reelection in 1994. He tried to repair the relationship with his first five children, sacrificed to his alcoholism and the headlong commitment he had made to the union. He and his new wife, a former city cop, were raising a child of their own. And though he was sure his bosses had handed him a night command as punishment, it was the kind of work that had drawn him to the force in the first place. (Bowden)

His return followed turmoil in the union:
He replaced Michael Lutz, who had been named by the FOP board of directors in 1993 to replace John Shaw, who was kicked out of office that year and later indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of looting the union. Lutz, chosen by the directors as FOP head until the next election, chose not to run for the office. (Gibbons)

During the next eight years Costello handled issues like health care (McDonald, “Street”) and arbitration (Boyer, “Arbitration”). He supported measures to provide police officers with more training and to encourage them to finish college and to encourage people with college degrees already to join the force (McDonald, “Wanted”). Working to reform the system he also disciplined officers, saying “Little men with a lot of power are dangerous. People that mistake position for power are kidding themselves.” (Landry). He supported efforts to keep a convicted ex-officer from collecting a police pension:
The state law barring corrupt public employees from collecting pensions ``is not one that any honest cop would have a problem with,'' said Fraternal Order of Police President Richard Costello. ``And this is one fight I can't blame the city for waging.'' (Marder)

He also supported new rules to keep city employees from joining the force for a short time to collect better retirement benefits:
A law that becomes effective today stops civilian city workers from manipulating pension plans so they can collect retirement benefits intended for police and firefighters who risked their lives on the job. Mayor Street signed legislation yesterday to close a loophole in the city's pension rules that allowed civilian workers to collect retirement benefits for uniformed workers even though they never wore a badge or served a single day on the beat.

"We're very grateful," said Rich Costello, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents the 7,000-member Police Department. "We were 150 percent in support of that legislation." (Boyer and Fazlollah, “City”)

These are all issues that the state legislature deals with.

Like all who serve in elected and leadership positions his term was not without some criticism. While he spoke in favor of disciplining officers:
Although the commissioner and the union president bitterly dispute issues surrounding arbitration, they agree that officers derelict in duty and dangerous to the public should be taken out of uniform and fired. (Boyer, “Arbitration”)

There is some question of whether or not he always followed through, as when he described two police employees who altered an accident report as “a minor mistake," (Angeles).

During his tenure as head of the FOP he was described as “feisty and often contentious” (Gibbons), and having “tongue as sharp as a ripsaw” (Daughen), but also as possibly, “the only union chief in America who, in anger, invokes Shakespeare” (Bowden).

A 1995 article gives a small glimpse into other facets of the man:
He's a 44-year-old man with a beefy big-jawed face, graying mustache, and widening gut. He has six kids, five from his first marriage, one from his second. He's almost deaf in his left ear from a bullet he took to the face when he was a 22-year-old cop. He's a recovering alcoholic. Every Sunday, when he goes to Mass, he stays in his pew when the others go up for Communion. He probably could go up. He wants to. But the Catholic Church says that until his first marriage is officially annulled, he's living in enough sin to disqualify him from the sacraments. He fears that applying for an annulment would be like telling his first five kids they're a mistake. So he stays in the pew and says the prayer of the pious centurion: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, say but the word and my soul shall be healed. (Bowden)

Part of his philosophy on police work, which, in my view, could also be extended to those who work for the public in other ways, can be found in a 1995 City Paper interview, answering the question “Who is the best police officer in Philadelphia?:
This job tends to downplay all-stars. Police work is one of the occupations that demands teamwork and, to a large extent, interchangeability. When you find somebody who has built a reputation for themselves, generally, you'll find that they're not a very good cop. The best police officer out there is probably nameless and faceless. It's the cop who is doing his or her job, the cop that you'll probably never hear about. But I wouldn't want to put a name on it, because on any given day, it could be any one of 5,900 men and women. (Eden)

In 2002 he decided not to run for re-election:
Costello said part of him "wanted to stay in office forever," but he recognized that time and a desire to see more of his family dictated his departure. And in announcing his planned departure, Costello did so with his own little aphorism:

"Power must be denied to those who actively seek power and must be placed on the shoulders of those who recognize what a terrible burden it is." (Daughen)

After sitting on the sidelines retiring from the police force, he has taken up this new challenge, running for the state legislature. He defeated a primary opponent 57-43% (Brennan). His campaign to unseat Perzel will be a tough one but Costello has been in tough situations before. It will be interesting to see what happens in November.


Angeles, Mark, “DA: Media pressure led to charges,” Daily News 1/17/2002

Bowden, Mark. “For Costello, a key role in the city’s police saga,” Inquirer, 12/17/1995

Boyer, Barbara, “Arbitration seen as major thrust of police report,“ Inquirer, 10/29/2001

Boyer, Barbara, and Fazlollah, Mark, “City plugs diversion of police pensions, Inquirer 2/22/2001

Brennan, Chris, “Its 10 and done for Rep. James,” Daily News 4/23/08

Daughen, Joseph R., “FOP leader is passing the gavel,” Daily News 7/02/2002

Eden, Ami, “20 questions: Richard Costello,” Philadelphia City Paper October 5–12, 1995
Gibbons, Thomas, Jr., “Costello says he won't seek reelection as FOP leader,” Inquirer, 07/02/2002

Landry, Peter, “Back on the beat force former FOP president Rich Costello returned to police force after a nasty re-election loss,” Inquirer 7/08/1993

McDonald, Mark, “Street frets over cops' health care - New contract award ups their benefits,” Daily News 7/26/2002

McDonald, Mark, “Wanted: cops with higher education,” Daily News 4/10/1997

Marder, Diana, “Convicted ex-officer now seeks a pension,” Inquirer 10/20/1997


Chris Casey said...

Great piece Jane, does this guy have a shot against Perzel?

AboveAvgJane said...

Hard to say. It would be nice, though, wouldn't it, to have some change?

Anonymous said...

Costello is a joke of a candidate and is being used as nothing but a pawn for a few other fellow NE elected officials. His ONLY chance at winning would be to ride in on Obamas coat tails which isn't very plausible in that district but stranger things have happened.