July 29August 5, 1999
The Internal Affairs case that haunts the police department.
by Noel Weyrich
photographs by Sandor Welsh
Andrew Oldrati and Joseph Donaghy braced themselves for the worst as they walked toward the 1967 Ford pickup truck idling on Delaware Avenue.
The two Philadelphia police officers would later tell investigators they had been warned by their sergeant to exercise caution. The driver, they had been told, was wanted on an arrest warrant and might attempt to flee. He was probably intoxicated and driving on a suspended license. Mothers Against Drunk Driving wanted him off the road so badly that he had made MADDs special "hit list" of outlaw motorists. On top of that, the driver was "anti-police," and "a cop-fighter."
It was 9:30 p.m. on August 5, 1996. Donaghy and Oldrati had stopped Charles Creightons pickup truck near Christian Street, shortly after Creighton left a meeting at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 union hall. Acting on orders that had come down from police headquarters, the two members of South Philadelphias 3rd District burglary team had spent two hours watching the pickup truck, waiting for Creighton to get in and drive away.
But in spite of the warnings that Creighton was potentially dangerous, Donaghy and Oldrati found him cooperative, if mildly irate. His irritation wasnt directed at the cops, though. "I know what this is all about," Creighton snapped. "You stopped me because Im running for office in the Sheet Metal Workers Union." At the time, neither Donaghy nor Oldrati knew what Creighton was talking about. They handcuffed him and led him to a police wagon. Creightons truck was searched and impounded.
Once they got Creighton back to the station, however, the police discovered that almost all the information they had on him was false. Although he did have a suspended license for a three-year-old DUI conviction, a records check showed no "wants" no outstanding warrants in his name. Officer Donaghy called MADD, only to discover the organization doesnt even keep a list of outlaw drivers. And MADD had never heard of Charles Creighton.
By the end of the evening, police were certain of only this much: The source of much of the wrong information they had acted on was a man named Bob OBrien. And Creighton, meanwhile, was complaining bitterly that he had been set up by a political enemy inside the Sheet Metal Workers union: Bob OBrien.
That was when the cops of South Philadelphias 3rd Police District began to suspect they had been played for fools that night. Ordered to take a dangerous wanted man off the streets, they had conducted a serious stakeout operation, only to haul in someone with nothing worse than a suspended drivers license to his name.
"This union intentionally tried to bring harm to me," the 47-year-old Creighton says now. "Their intention wasnt only to have me arrested. Their intention was to have me shot. They misled the police by saying that I was involved in vehicular manslaughter, that I was a cop-hater. When those cops pulled me over, they were scared to death. When I got out of the car, they all drew their guns and yelled, Get back in the vehicle!
"Thats why they went berserk [later on] when they found out I wasnt who they thought I was," he adds. "They were pissed off at their higher-ups for putting them in that position."
An 11-month-long police Internal Affairs investigation of Creightons car stop was quietly completed in March of last year. The confidential final report claimed to fully exonerate the department, even though investigators were unable to interview OBrien and failed to document just how the order to apprehend Creighton had become a priority item, directly sent down from then-Deputy Commissioner for Operations Richard Zappile.
"The uninvestigated question remains why would a deputy police commissioner be involved with this gentlemans suspended license," complains Rich Costello, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "It was as if the assassination investigation of President Kennedy focused on what color socks Oswald was wearing that day. Weve conclusively proven they were argyle, and we walk away happy."
Police Commissioner John Timoney recently allowed City Paper to inspect Internal Affairs investigation #97-1061. The 41-page memorandum, completed before Timoney took charge of the department, reveals how police officials first tried to stop the Creighton incident from ever being investigated and then permitted a top police official to withhold crucial information about how Creighton came to be wrongly targeted.
Along with confidential interview transcripts obtained by City Paper, these internal documents cast a particularly harsh light on Deputy Commissioner John J. Norris, the departments mercurial commander of Internal Affairs and today one of the two or three most powerful people at police headquarters.
Norris, the documents show, repeatedly refused to initiate an investigation on the Creighton traffic stop, acquiescing only when Creighton himself filed a formal complaint of "official oppression" months later. Then Norris removed the investigation from public inspection by designating it an "internal" extremely rare for any investigation prompted by a citizen complaint.
Further, when Norris himself became a subject of the investigation, he neglected to remove himself from its oversight. And in clearing the police department of official misconduct, the final report approved by Norris concludes by rebuffing the 3rd District police for even questioning orders from headquarters.
Police officials declined to respond to a written list of questions regarding this story, claiming that scheduling conflicts prevented them from providing a "complete response."
The FOPs Costello maintains that the "Sheet Metal Workers job," as its come to be known, is just one of several cases that have cemented rank-and-file cynicism about the departments internal investigations. "These cases can do far more damage than it would appear on the surface," he maintains. "Its just another example of Do what I say, not what I do. Thats where the seeds of corruption are planted. Thats when cops, the borderline ones, begin to figure that [the top brass doesnt] follow the rules, so why should I? This is another good case where people on the outside dont understand the devastating impact [these cases] can have."
The day after the Creighton car stop, Captain Michael Cooney, commander of the 3rd Police District, got a call at home from one of his officers. It was Joseph Donaghy and he sounded upset. Donaghy complained that the Creighton stop had gotten him in the middle of a "political game." The captain told him not to worry, that he hadnt done anything wrong.
But Cooney himself was worried. The order to stop Creighton had come from Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Zappile, who as head of police operations was second in rank only to the commissioner. An aide to Zappile had called Cooney directly with the details, including, Cooney would later say, the name and pager number of one Bob OBrien.
Cooneys relationship with Zappile was a strained one. Zappile lives close to the 3rd District station house, and during Cooneys command there, Zappile often dropped by to needle him about abandoned cars and other chronic neighborhood problems. Once, Zappile left a snide "wash me" note on Cooneys car.
Zappile also came by with requests for police service for friends and neighbors, requests Cooney sometimes considered inappropriate. A consummate back-slapper, Zappile is a darling of the local media and has political connections in South Philadelphia that run deep and wide. Inside the Rendell administration, it is commonly known that when the police commissioners position opened up last year, no fewer than four of South Phillys warring political factions pushed for Zappiles candidacy.
If there was a rap against Cooney, it was that he was too much of a straight arrow, too "by the book," to ever be popular in a neighborhood of little fixes and favors like South Philadelphia. By some, for instance, he is perhaps remembered best for his doomed attempt to enforce the widely ignored ban on parking down the middle of South Broad Street. In contrast to Zappile, Cooney is a soft-spoken, somewhat austere individual the two are like oil and water.
Loath as Cooney might have been to antagonize Zappile, the Creighton car stop had been executed on the basis of so much wrong information that Cooney was certain it required an internal investigation. Cooney had once worked in Internal Affairs himself and had a good relationship with the commanding officer there, then-Inspector John Norris. He occasionally handed Norris informal bits of information about potential investigative leads, possible incidents of misconduct hed heard about. Cooney figured hed do the same with the Creighton car stop information.
What happened next depends on whom you believe.
Cooney would later tell investigators that Norris immediate reaction to the Creighton story was that Zappile had been wrong, and that "if some other agency got hold of the details it would look really bad." Norris promised to look into it, suggesting that perhaps Zappile himself had been duped.
Then, Cooney said, Norris had some personal advice for him. "He said, Go and talk to Zappile," Cooney told investigators. "Then hell owe you one and stop messing with you." Cooney said he wrote down Norris comments and suggestions as they spoke. When he left, Cooney assumed Norris would open an investigation at once.
Norris, however, would remember things quite differently. "I never said that Deputy Commissioner Zappile was wrong," Norris insisted in his interview with investigators. By the end of that meeting with Cooney, Norris said, "I was of the strong opinion that there was no misconduct." Norris denied he offered to investigate, but claimed instead that he invited Cooney to file a "white paper" basically a memo accusing Zappile of misconduct. Norris also denied that Cooney took notes during their conversation.
Claiming to be following Norris advice, Capt. Cooney met with Deputy Commissioner Zappile several weeks later, and both mens memories of the meeting are similar. Zappile denied knowing OBrien and denied that his source on the Creighton car stop was affiliated with any union.
But Zappile disputed whether it would matter even if he did know OBrien.
The FOPs Costello maintains that the "Sheet Metal Workers job," as its come to be known, is just one of several cases that have cemented rank-and-file cynicism about the departments internal investigations.
According to Zappile, he told Cooney, "Even if his opponent sat in my office and said that [he wanted] to embarrass him and had information that he was driving on a suspended license, [t]hen what recourse would we have? Would we give him absolution as he was running for union office?" Zappile would tell investigators, "I assured Capt. Cooney that his police officers did the right thing, and if he had any reservation that he should go to Internal Affairs."
Charles Creighton, meanwhile, was intent on getting Traffic Court to throw out the two traffic tickets he had gotten that night on Delaware Avenue. There was a lot at stake for him.
Years earlier, Creighton had been caught twice driving under the influence of alcohol, and his license had been suspended. This suspension, now nearing expiration, would be extended if these two Philadelphia traffic tickets were upheld.
And without a valid drivers license, hed be disqualified under union bylaws from his planned June 1997 election campaign against the Sheet Metal Workers Union president Tom Kelly.
In 1995, Creighton had lost the vote for union recording secretary to one of Kellys key allies Bob OBrien. Like Richard Zappile, Tom Kelly has a substantial profile in the citys political circles. As chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, Kelly holds one of Mayor Ed Rendells most highly coveted board appointments, and the citys Democratic Party holds many of its fundraising functions at the unions Delaware Avenue banquet hall. When State Sen. Vince Fumo tried to step in and settle last years SEPTA strike, he kept Tom Kelly by his side during crucial private meetings with transit worker boss Steve Brookens.
Neither Kelly nor OBrien would comment for this article. The unions attorney, Bruce Endy, says, "My advice to them is that its kind of old news. I dont see, frankly, where it was ever a newsworthy event." Creighton, he points out, has never been blocked from running for union office.
Thats partly because Creighton did indeed get his two tickets thrown out of Traffic Court. The reason was symptomatic of the confusion among the 3rd District cops on the night of Creightons stop.
As the police planned the stakeout on Creignhtons truck, they had been assured he was wanted on a warrant, and that Commissioner Zappile wanted him stopped.
Police normally pull people over for visible violations of the traffic code not because theyve been given information about the driver. Motor vehicle documents showed Creightons pickup truck was properly registered and had current tags.
Donaghy, the officer who wrote Creighton the traffic tickets, later told investigators he had been ordered "to find a reason to stop [Creighton]."
Donaghy had once worked as mechanic, he said, and noticed that Creightons truck lacked a rear bumper. He felt certain it was a violation of the motor vehicle code. The missing bumper then became the pretext for stopping Creighton. Once he was stopped, he issued Creighton a second ticket for driving with a suspended license.
But in Traffic Court, Creighton was able to prove the truck had been manufactured without a bumper and met the motor vehicle code requirements. That removed the probable cause for the stop, and both tickets were tossed out.
By late 1996, Creighton had been contacted by an Inquirer reporter who assured him that his car stop was under departmental investigation. It was not until April of 1997 that Creighton discovered the reporter had been misled, that in fact, the department had no intention of ever looking into the Sheet Metal Workers job.
So on April 9, 1997, Creighton finally went down to Internal Affairs headquarters, a shabby, unmarked brick building in the 300 block of Race Street, and filed a formal citizens complaint claiming "official oppression." The Internal Affairs summary of his interview that day states that Creighton believed that "possibly a representative of the union misused their political power to influence city politics through misused police authority."
Nearly eight months after he had considered the matter closed, John Norris was compelled finally to investigate the Sheet Metal Workers job.
Compactly built with a jutting jaw, John Norris has a tightly wound, secretive demeanor, one perhaps well suited for internal affairs work. Among subordinates, the former highway patrol officer is known for being an involved, hands-on manager who possesses an explosive temper.
When the police department receives complaints from citizens, the contents of the resulting investigations are almost always a matter of public record. Occasionally, though, when investigators feel they need to protect sources within the department, Internal Affairs may choose to take the citizen complaint "internal" making it a confidential investigation, unavailable for public scrutiny.
Norris went internal with the Creighton complaint as soon as it was filed, in April 1997. Months earlier, Norris had claimed he was certain there was no misconduct in Creightons car stop. Now, the investigation of the car stop was far too hot for public inspection.
In recent years, Norris has grown increasingly bold in dropping citizen complaint investigations into the secret "black box" of internals so much so that the independent Police Advisory Commission has written to Norris, asking him to explain what the commission sees as a disturbing pattern of escalating secrecy.
James Jordan, who heads the departments Integrity and Accountability Office, is the only citizen with the power to review all Internal Affairs investigations. While Jordan says hes noted the increasing number of citizen complaints being taken internal, he doesnt see any drive on Norris part to cover up investigative misconduct. "There is no evidence of anyone there hiding the football, so to speak."
But the FOPs Costello, along with other police sources, expresses an even more serious concern about the start of the Creighton investigation: They wonder why Norris handled it at all.
Costello, in particular, makes a persuasive case that Norris should have instantly turned the entire matter over to another unit within the department. After all, Norris had already avoided investigating the issue for eight months. Any finding of misconduct now would reflect poorly on his prior decision to look the other way. It appeared that Norris would have a personal interest in exonerating the department.
"Its highly irregular," says Costello. "At the time this case went down, there was another unit out there called the Ethics Accountability Division, one of whose missions was to investigate any cases that potentially involved Internal Affairs. Now when this case became colored by the potential involvement of [Internal Afairs], where were weighing Norris version vs. Cooneys, at that point the case should have been drop-kicked to EAD, as other cases have been. I mean, where are we going when we have allegations against one individual and we let that individual do the investigation?"
Norris assigned the Creighton case to Internal Affairs Capt. Jeffrey Greene, one of Norris direct subordinates.
The result, says Costello, was a predictable whitewash. "Since Greene works for Norris," he says, "thats almost a function of human nature."
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