December 1623, 1999
Up Against the Blue Wall
Could a new trial for Tony Becker crack the cops code of silence?
by Noel Weyrich
In Tony Beckers neighborhood, a sliver of Fishtown squeezed between Richmond Street and the decrepit factories along Aramingo Avenue, hanging on the corner is generally what passes for teenage nightlife.
"Its customary around here," says Becker, 22. Though he admits that theres plenty of underage drinking and sometimes the laughter gets too loud, the neighbors have learned to live with it. "Were surrounded by some pretty bad neighborhoods," Becker says. "The older people feel safer on the street when they see neighborhood kids hanging on the corner."
Friday night, Sept. 13, 1996, was Tony Beckers only night out that week. Then 19, Becker was working two jobs and taking a full course load at Temple, consciously trying to stay busy. "I thought it would keep me out of trouble," he says now, with a bitter laugh.
By the end of that night, Becker would be in plenty of trouble. He would be sitting, bloodied and vomiting, in a police holding cell, aching from nine stitches in his forehead, and facing felony assault charges for allegedly fighting with police. The police report claims that Becker and a teenaged neighbor, Susan Bowers, had both assaulted a police officer responding to a "man with gun" report. The police claim that Becker and Bowers suffered their nearly identical head injuries accidentally while struggling with officers at the scene.
But not every police officer who was there that night saw the same thing. One cop, now an ex-cop, says he watched as a member of the departments stakeout unit deliberately bashed Beckers and Bowers heads with a single blow each from a heavy five D-cell flashlight. Not only is it against regulations to use a flashlight as a weapon, but "headstrikes" of any kind are explicitly forbidden in the departments use-of-force guidelines.
The blue wall of silence, Timoney suggests, is a fact of life
Becker, the ex-cop says, never hit anyone. Becker was nonetheless convicted twice of misdemeanor assault and sentenced to probation, although the felony charge against him was quickly dropped.
But now, hoping to clear his record and his name, Tony Becker has petitioned Common Pleas Court for a new trial on the basis of new evidence. A second cop in the 26th District has recently sworn under oath that he overheard two of his fellow officers conspire that night to cover up the stakeout officers alleged behavior. Becker and his attorney, a court-appointed public defender, hope that this second officer, Jose Acevedo, will be able to discredit the testimony of the cops who claimed Becker assaulted them.
Having one police officer testifying against others in support of a defendant would be a rare phenomenon in the courtrooms of Philadelphia. It would constitute something of a break with the Philadelphia Police Departments notorious code of silence, the so-called blue wall of silence that critics say routinely protects brutal and corrupt police officers from discipline and prosecution.
"It is unusual for something like this to occur," says Alan Yatvin, an attorney who has frequently sued the Philadelphia police for using excessive force. Yatvin adds that although "covering for the kindred" may be common in many professions, "in the case of officers telling on officers, its a big problem. It has such staggering ramifications for the justice system. Thats what makes it all the more intolerable."
On the night that Tony Becker got his head split open, Officer John Leca had already earned a reputation as a being a "rat" among certain police officers in the 26th District.
Leca had been transferred from Germantowns 14th District three years earlier. In the 14th, Leca had lodged a complaint with the department that a narcotics officer screwed up the reports on an arrest in which he had participated. (The officer was later disciplined for the infraction.) When Leca got to the 26th, he says, the story of the narcotics officer went with him.
Leca was in his patrol car sometime after 12:30 a.m. when the call went out about a white teenager reported with a gun in the vicinity of Huntingdon and Edgemont. The police radio logs confirm that Leca responded to the call and arrived at the scene. As he approached a knot of cops and teenagers near Douglas High School on Edgemont Street, he came face to face with a belligerent 200-pound young man whose first words to him were "Fuck you!" It was Tony Becker.
Becker admits he was upset with the police at that moment. Several of his friends were either being frisked or put in patrol cars, though none of them, he says, fit the description of the guy with the gun. "I dont deny flipping around some f-notes," says Becker. But he never hit
anyone, he says, a claim that Leca confirms.
Amid the chaos of flashing strobe lights and cops in frantic pursuit of the phantom gunman, another of the officers commanded Becker to stand up against a patrol car. When Becker refused, Leca says he saw a stakeout officer bring a flashlight down across Beckers brow. Then, when another officer bent down to cuff Becker, Susan Bowers jumped on the officers back. The same stakeout officer, says Leca, then hit Bowers in the head with the flashlight. As Leca tells it, both Becker and Bowers were on the ground bleeding from the head. The cops never found the guy with the gun.
Days later, Leca thought it was strange that detectives had still not interviewed him about Beckers arrest. Leca says he believed the stakeout officer had used excessive force and was awaiting the interview for a chance to report it. Thats when Jose Acevedo approached Leca to relate an exchange he had overheard at East Detectives.
Acevedo had been seated at a phone, straightening out some paperwork, when he heard the detective on the Becker case interviewing police officers as potential witnesses for the prosecution. According to Acevedo, when one officer noted that Leca was also there that night, another officer said, "Oh, no, no you dont want him [there], youre all going to go to federal court and lose your jobs."
Detectives never did interview John Leca in the Becker case. At Beckers first trial, in March 1997, Leca was not offered as a potential witness by the prosecution. Several police officers testified that Becker had assaulted one of them and, despite eyewitness civilian testimony to the contrary, Becker was convicted.
Another officer said, "Oh, no, no you dont want [Leca] there, youre all going to go to federal court and lose your jobs."
By then, Leca says, "I pretty much became resigned to the fact that I couldnt do anything for these people." He had serious problems of his own. Just weeks after the Becker arrest, he had gone to Internal Affairs with eight serious complaints against his sergeant and lieutenant, accusing one of them of calling the police commissioner a "fucking nigger" at an open roll call, and accusing the other of refusing to report an auto theft ring Leca had discovered.
Both accusations, and five others, were eventually substantiated by Internal Affairs investigators. But while they were being investigated, Leca claims he was subjected to unbearable retaliation by those same supervisors. A year later, he had left the force and filed a federal whistleblowers suit against the department, counting Internal Affairs among his tormentors. The case is pending.
By the time Beckers appeal was ready, Leca had contacted Beckers attorney and passed on what Acevedo had told him. In the trial before a jury, in late 1997, Acevedo was subpoenaed to testify, but he never did. Only in a recent deposition, given for Lecas civil suit, are his reasons made clear. Acevedo explains that when he showed up for the trial, all the police officers involved in the Becker case were watching him talk with Beckers attorney. The blue wall of silence was standing in his way.
"When [Beckers attorney] approached me I felt uncomfortable to have a conversation with him," Acevedo told Lecas attorney in the deposition. "I said, Well, if you want me to tell you what I saw, you put me on the stand. Im not going to tell you right here and then jeopardize myself in front of these officers."
Not knowing what Acevedo would say, Beckers attorney didnt want to risk using him as a witness. Becker was convicted again, and on Dec. 23, 1997, he was sentenced to house arrest of up to 23 months and probation for a year beyond that.
In a recent interview with televisions 60 Minutes, Police Commissioner John Timoney said he took it as a given that police officers adhere to a code of silence. On the same show, New Yorks police commissioner simply denied it.
Timoney also did not express much hope that the code would change, though he advises police officers, "If you see conduct bordering on excessive brutality, get in, step in, intervene and stop the behavior." But the blue wall, Timoney suggests, is a fact of life.
District Attorney Lynne Abraham has made similar comments when addressing the difficulties of prosecuting police for misconduct. But defense attorneys maintain that, in a strange way, the District Attorneys Office often plays an important role in helping maintain the police code of silence.
For instance, before his first trial, Becker says he was offered a deal by an assistant district attorney, to plead guilty to a summary offense that would be wiped clean from his record in six months if he promised not to sue the city for his injuries.
He refused. "I wasnt going to say I did something I didnt do," says Becker.
To Brad Bridge at the Public Defenders Office, such deals are "unfortunately an all-too-frequent occurrence. It puts people charged with crimes in an unfortunate and difficult position. They face a Hobsons choice of either going to trial and being found guilty of serious charges, even if theyre not guilty, or accepting the tantalizing offer presented by a prosecutor, to make the case go away.
"As a consequence," Bridge continues, "corrupt behavior, abusive behavior and improper behavior by the police department does not come to light. Theres no doubt in my mind that theyre trying, to a degree, to insulate the police department from improper conduct claims. Theyve been doing this for a long time and its always angered me."
Although other defense attorneys echo Bridges contention, a spokesperson for the District Attorneys Office flatly denies it. Reading from a prepared statement, spokesperson Cathie Abookire says, "The District Attorneys Office has a policy of not making those kinds of agreements. Therefore Brad Bridges allegations are completely false."
As one of just several attorneys designated by federal district court to oversee the police departments ongoing reform, Alan Yatvin takes little solace in the fact that Tony Becker just may get his new trial. "Maybe its only the beginning of a crack in the blue wall of silence," says Yatvin. "I mean, wouldnt it have been nice if everyone involved had done their duty and acted responsibly in the beginning?"
Tony Beckers house arrest lasted only three months, but he will continue on probation until next year. An evidentiary hearing is scheduled for February on his new trial appeal. Meanwhile, he is working full-time as a legal assistant in a New Jersey lawyers office. He hopes to get a job in broadcasting, consistent with his major in communications. Occasionally, when he fills out a job application, though, his status as a criminal haunts him.
Says Becker, "Whenever I see the question Have you ever been convicted of a I say to myself, Please say "felony"."
Back to the News directory page