July 1522, 1999
hit and run
The Case of the Cockfighting Cops
Three scandal-tainted police officers who were stripped of their guns and badgesby Police Commissioner John Timoney are now likely to return to patrolling the streets, following a decision by thestate labor board.
Hearing examiner Timothy Tietze ruled recently that the police department is bound by its labor agreement to put theofficers back on patrol, despite Timoneys objections that the officers, all of whom were involved in a majorcorruption scandal several years ago, would make unreliable trial witnesses.
"If they make an arrest in the future, youre almost guaranteed to lose the case," says Timoney, whoassigned the three cops to desk jobs last July. "Everything is open to the defense attorneys. Theyre going tobring up their truthfulness. With juries, all youve got to do is create some doubt." The city is appealingTietzes decision to the full PennsylvaniaLabor Relations Board, but a reversal there would be very unusual.
Officers Lester Johnson, John OHanlon and Edward Greene were fired in 1996 after their arrest for stealing$28,000 from gamblers at an illegal cockfight. A federal jury took less than 15 minutes to acquit them in 1997, andearly last year, a labor arbitrator ordered all three returned to the force with full back pay. When Timoney respondedby withholding their guns and badges and assigning them to desk duty, lawyers for the Fraternal Order of Police appealedto the labor board.
"The arbitrator supposedly reinstated them to their former positions," says Thomas W. Jennings, an FOPlawyer. "Thats what the case clearly meant to a patrol function with a badge and a gun. Doing what[Timoney] did to them was not in compliance with the arbitrators award."
Jennings points out that over the years, dozens of police officers acquitted of serious crimes, including murder andextortion, have had their guns and badges returned to them. "They all got reassigned to patrol districts," hesays. "Some got promoted. Some of them are lieutenants and captains these days. We had an exhibit two-and-a-halfinches thick that listed them all."
Labor arbitration rulings have been a sore point with Timoney since he came here from New York in March of 1998. Herecently complained at a public forum that deployment decisions were being made by "some arbitrator who knowsnothing about running a police department" and concluded that "the system is absolutely out of control."At Timoneys prompting, the city is expected to seek changes to state labor laws affecting arbitration thisfall.
With the "cockfight cops," however, Timoney had thought he had found a loop-> hole. Clearly doubting the trios innocence in the case, Timoney toldPhiladelphia magazine earlier this year that "Theres more than one way to skin a cop. Wevegot them answering phones, and theyre going crazy."
But Jennings says that if the department has evidence of misconduct against Johnson, OHanlon and Greene,Timoney failed to make a convincing case during the arbitration process. He discounts, also, Timoneys complaintthat local prosecutors have written letters claiming they would be unlikely to try cases in which any of the three werethe arresting officers.
"The argument," says Jennings, "is that if you get falsely accused and youre acquitted in 11minutes on 20-something counts of corruption, you can no longer be a cop. Its absurd."