July 29August 5, 1999
The Internal Affairs case that haunts the police department.
continued from here
photographs by Sandor Welsh
by Noel Weyrich
On April 23, 1997, the first and only news item about the Creighton car stop appeared in the Inquirer. "Police Tipped Off Before Stop of Union Figure" made the front page of the Metro section and quoted both union officials, OBrien and Kelly, as denying any involvement in the incident. "I wouldnt do that to anybody," OBrien said. "I dont know anything about it. Im sitting here flabbergasted." Zappile and his aide, Lt. John Haggerty, also denied any knowledge of the link to OBrien.
Three months earlier, the same Inquirer reporter, Peter Nicholas, had done a series of stories revealing that 3rd District police had been posted on special foot patrols around such South Philly landmarks as Pats Steaks, Genos Steaks and Terminis Bakery. After Zappile had denied knowing about the patrols, Cooney confirmed that Zappile had personally ordered them. The stories were enormously embarrassing to Zappile, and the foot beats were pulled.
This latest story was embarrassing, too. Nicholas had gotten hold of a photocopied printout of Creightons Bureau of Motor Vehicles record, with some jottings by Capt. Cooney scrawled across it. Among the words in Cooneys handwriting were "Bob OBrien," a beeper number, and "get while driving blue pickup truck."
Cooney declined comment for the Inquirer article, and six days after it appeared, he was interviewed by Internal Affairs for the first time. Despite Haggertys claims to the Inquirer, Cooney assured the investigators that it was Haggerty, in Zappiles office, who gave him OBriens name and number. (Cooneys assistant, James Waters, would later tell investigators that he transferred the call from Haggerty to his boss, and went in to see Cooney immediately after the call ended. Cooney told him about the planned car stop and mentioned that Bob OBrien would provide the police with more information.)
The sergeant supervising the car stop, Robert Muldoon, would tell investigators that he contacted OBrien at least twice on the evening of Creightons stop. Muldoon said he relied on OBrien to provide police with an accurate description of Creighton.
By May 1997, however, OBrien and other union officials had refused to be interviewed by Internal Affairs, on the advice of the unions lawyer. (Internal police investigations cant compel members of the general public to cooperate.) The central question of how Creighton was targeted would either be answered by Deputy Commissioner Richard Zappile or not at all.
Michael Cooneys interview with Internal Affairs had lasted four hours, with infrequent breaks. Capt. Jeffrey Greene spent exactly 35 minutes questioning Zappile.
During Zappiles interview, Greene never once directly asked the deputy commissioner to disclose the name of his source on Creighton.
Zappile spoke merely of an informant who "calls me on a regular basis, providing me with information, regarding alleged criminal activity, drug locations, quality of life issues, abandoned cars and had given me other information that day."
Rather than asking, "Who was your source and how can we talk to him?," Greene resorted to a kind of "20 questions" game, asking if the information had come from Bob OBrien or any other union source. Zappile replied, "My informant is not a union member, was not a union member and does not know Mr. Creighton." Zappile did not have to explain how he could be so sure.
"I think it was understood upfront that Im not going to release the name of my informant unless its essential to the investigation,"Zappile says now. "If we gave up sources all the time, no one would ever come to us with information."
"In law enforcement, you dont get many confidential sources on suspended licenses," Costello laughs. "I can take confidential sources on organized crime cases or high-level narcotics investigations. But this is a good example of an abuse of a good law enforcement tool. Come on now."
With Zappile unwilling to give up his source, the investigation hit a dead end. "Id say, in that case, there was no legitimate investigation," Costello says.
After Zappiles interview, Cooney was brought back a second time, and peppered with questions about whether he knew Tom Kelly and Bob OBrien. Having been the first police official to raise the question of whether Creightons stop was proper, Cooney would later say he felt himself increasingly becoming Internal Affairs prime target.
Capt. Greenes investigation also started probing the tangential question of who might have leaked Creightons motor vehicle records to the Inquirer reporter. Before it was all over, Cooneys brother (a retired police inspector) and members of the FOP had all been dragged into the dithering over the leaked document.
Then there was another strange twist. Cooney reported to Internal Affairs in August 1997 that one of the officers at Creightons stop was now accusing officer Joseph Donaghy of helping Creighton beat his traffic tickets, in exchange for help in securing a transfer. Creighton says the charge was absurd, since he lives in Quakertown, Bucks County, and has on influence within Philadelphias police department.
The record shows that Creighton was one of the last people to be interviewed in the investigation of his complaint. By then, however, the conversation focused entirely on this latest allegation, ultimately left unproven.
"Thats all it became," Creighton says bitterly. "You should have heard the shit they told me. They told me [Donaghy] confessed. That he wrote the tickets the way he wrote them just to help me. I said, What, do you guys think youre on television or something?" In fact, Donaghy denied the allegation and it remains unproven.
Also in August of 1997, Capt. Cooney received his long-awaited promotion to inspector. It was his ticket out of Zappiles back yard in the 3rd District, and perhaps out from under Zappiles command altogether.
Then his new assignment came down from Commissioner Richard Neals office: Night Command, the purgatory of the command staff. Under Neal, it was a black hole into which police careers entered and never emerged. Although Zappile would deny it many times, few in the department doubted that Night Command was Cooneys comeuppance for entangling Zappile in the Sheet Metal Workers job.
The conclusion of the final report on IAD #97-1061 granted the Philadelphia Police department full exoneration from Charles Creightons claim of "official oppression." The utter failure of the investigation to interview the source of the information about Creighton (because Zappile would not disclose the source) was never acknowledged in the report.
The analysis and conclusion of the report, authored by Capt. Greene, did arrive at these somewhat startling key findings:
The police department was fully exonerated on the narrow basis that Creightons license suspension "precluded the need for any additional probable cause to make a legal stop once the vehicle was located."
Because Lt. Haggerty and Capt. Cooney contradicted each other about the origin of Bob OBriens name and pager number, Capt. Greene said the matter could not be resolved. Statements supporting Cooneys version of the story, given by Cooneys aide, were ignored.
Regarding the first meeting between Cooney and Norris (in which Cooney claimed Norris faulted Zappiles handling of the car stop), Greene determined that Norris version of the conversation "seems to be more credible," even though Cooney had notes from the meeting. Greenes judgment call in favor of Norris, his own boss, dismissed Cooneys serious contention that Norris had known there might be a problem with the Creighton car stop, but chose to look the other way.
The report then made these modest recommendations:
Donaghy should receive training in determining probable cause for car stops.
The commanding officer of the 3rd District should instruct the police officers there about the confidentiality of motor vehicle reports.
The report closed with the following gratuitous jab at the officers of the 3rd District:
"It should be noted that there has been an apparent underlying resentment to act on orders or requests generated by the Office of the Deputy Commissioner by personnel of the 3rd district up to and including the then-acting commanding officer."
Although the interviews in Charles Creightons report had all been completed by October 1997, the report wasnt written and approved until March 1998.
It was a tumultuous time in the departments history. Commissioner Neal, a close confidant of Zappile, was under fire from City Council for his flailing efforts to stamp out drug-related crime in some of the citys worst neighborhoods. Neal was looking more and more like he wouldnt last much longer. Zappile was widely touted as a possible successor.
In that light, the official filing date of the memorandum is an extraordinarily significant one: March 6, 1998.
The last day in office for retiring Commissioner Richard Neal.
By that date, Zappile had already been passed over as Neals successor, with John Timoney scheduled to start work Monday, March 9. Norris had made it known by then that he was ready to retire and take a job with the Center City District.
But within weeks of the final reports completion, all three of the police departments main players in the Sheet Metal Workers investigation would see dramatic reversals of fortune under the new police commissioner.
Richard Zappile, passed over for commissioner, was off the force. He was replaced by former chief inspector Sylvester Johnson, a man Timoney would later say "is the only person that the FBI trusts." But Zappile won himself a soft landing, care of Mayor Rendell, who made him a deputy mayor with a $3,000 boost in pay. Last month, Zappile left the Rendell administration to take charge of the Philadelphia Housing Authoritys security operations.
Inspector Michael Cooney was pulled from the purgatory of Night Command and installed by Timoney as his special adviser for education. Cooney now works out of the police academy, managing projects to improve the departments continuing education and training efforts.
But John Norris has gotten the greatest boost of all. Timoney talked him out of retiring, and then vaulted him over a dozen or more chief inspectors to make him the departments first-ever Deputy Commissioner for Internal Affairs. Under Timoneys reorganization, the Ethics Accountability Division was abolished and its duties were folded into Internal Affairs. For the first time in the departments history, all of the powers of the Philadelphia Police to police themselves for corruption and brutality have been consolidated in the office of a single individual.
Norris and Cooney are currently among a mere handful of people who report directly to Commissioner Timoney. The onetime friends now barely speak to each other.
Charles Creighton was eventually trounced in his June 1997 bid to unseat Tom Kelly as the president of Sheet Metal Workers union Local 19. The Inquirer article hurt him, he says, "because I was labeled as a drunk." He has since curtailed his activity in union politics, though he has a lawyer looking into whether Kelly and OBrien can be sued for unfair labor union activities related to the traffic stop.
But the final insult Charles Creighton suffered at the hands of the Philadelphia Police department was that Internal Affairs never bothered to contact him once the final report had been filed. So he had to send a certified letter to the commissioner, just to read the investigation based on his own complaint.
As he pored over the 41 pages in a cubicle at Internal Affairs, he realized he had waited nearly two years only to find that "I had complained about the misuse of power and authority. But through the whole thing, they never investigated what I asked them to investigate."