by Sue Ann Rybak
Dressed in a black polo shirt and dark blue stonewashed jeans, it’s hard to imagine John Fleming, the former 14th District police captain dressed in black leather boots, a double-breasted leather coat, white helmet, and a basket weave Sam Browne belt and holster, riding a Harley-Davidson Police Road King motorcycle.
Fleming, who is now captain of the Philadelphia Highway Patrol Unit, an elite high-crime task force whose duties include escorting presidents and dignitaries, spoke at Mt. Airy-Nippon-Bryan-Cresheim Town Watch’s monthly meeting on Sept. 10.
More than a dozen residents crammed the small living room in the house on the 100 block of Nippon Street in Mt. Airy to hear about his role in coordinating security efforts to keep Pope Francis safe when he visits Philadelphia next week. The current14th District police captain, Sekou Kinebrew, also was in attendance.
He described the unit as steeped in tradition and admitted that it took him awhile to get used to his new uniform. Fleming made the audience laugh when he described his first time riding a motorcycle like a newborn baby giraffe, wobbling and swaying back and forth. Since then, however, he has been running full-speed ahead preparing for the Pope’s visit.
“My job from my chief inspector was to get 100 motorcycle riders for the pope,” Fleming said.
To achieve that goal, he was going to have to bring officers in from different townships and counties.
Fortunately, he said, “everybody wants to be a part of this.”
“It doesn’t matter whether they are Catholic, Christian or whatever,” Fleming said. “Motorcycle cops want to be involved.”
When officials announced that the Benjamin Franklin Bridge would be closed, however, many small police departments didn’t have the manpower to loan officers to the Philadelphia police department.
He explained that even if other departments could spare a few motorcycle officers, they could not just show up. He said they had to be sworn in, and issues such as liability, lodging, food and gas had to be addressed.
And there was another complication: The Highway Patrol Unit’s Drill Team, “the best of the best,” were asked to be with the pope at all times.
Thankfully, through the years, Fleming has learned “to appreciate the value of developing relationships.”
He reached out to former police officers, officials, mentors and acquaintances. Several local universities and colleges agreed to provide lodging for the officers, including Chestnut Hill College, St. Joseph’s University and Philadelphia University.
One attendee asked if he thought Philadelphia or the Nutter administration was going overboard. She said the security measures seemed a little extreme for a man who recently drove himself to see his optometrist.
Steve Stroiman, president of the Town Watch, said that, according to Time magazine, the pope is the third most important person in the world.
“This country does not want to be responsible for anything negative that could happen to the pope,” he said.
“We would rather overdo it than be caught off guard,” Fleming said.
Stroiman added that as the spiritual leader of more than a billion people or one-sixth the world’s population, the pope is a natural target for terrorists.
One resident asked Fleming when he will breathe a sigh of relief.
“Not until Monday morning,” he said.