December 30, 1999January 6, 2000
A bungled traffic stop, a hail of police bullets, a young life torn apart.
by Noel Weyrich
It was a cold, dark October night in North Philly, and 20-year-old Dwayne Campbell had just dropped off his grandmother at church. His 9-year-old niece needed a ride to South Philly, and Campbell, fearful of the passenger-side airbags, asked the little girl to sit in the back of the 1995 Mercury Mystique.
Campbells thoughtfulness may indeed have saved her life that night, but not for the reasons he imagined.
At about 8 p.m., Campbell and his niece were stopped at a red light at Dauphin and Ridge when a red Plymouth suddenly raced ahead of them in the opposing lane of traffic and then swerved out in front, blocking the way. Two men one black, one white, Campbell remembers leaped out of the car.
Once he saw the white man draw a gun, Dwayne Campbell says he didnt wait around to see what the men wanted. He threw the Mercury into reverse, ramming the vehicle behind him. "After that, I just cut the wheel left, into the oncoming traffic lane. Bullets are flying everywhere. Glass is flying everywhere," recalls Campbell. Thats when he noticed the gash in his left forearm where splintered bone had pushed through the skin.
Desperately trying to calm down as the blood gushed from the wound in his arm, Campbell raced down Ridge Avenue, hailing a passing police car by flashing his headlights. He was taken directly to Allegheny Hospital, MCP division, by police who feared hed bleed to death if they waited for an emergency van. His niece, they assured him, had been unharmed.
It was almost an hour before Campbell learned he had been shot three times, including once in the back of the head. He remembers feeling glad at first when a police detective walked into his hospital room. "When he first came up, I was thinking, Hey, maybe they found the guys."
"Next thing I know," Campbell continues, "He was reading me my rights."
The man who came within a hairs breadth of killing Dwayne Campbell was a plainclothes Philadelphia police officer. Campbell was arrested that night for aggravated assault and other charges because both the officer and his partner claimed Campbell had tried to hit him with his car.
"I felt so betrayed," says Campbell now, two years after the shooting. "It was like a nightmare. I had never been arrested a day in my life. Never." That night, recuperating from his wounds, Campbell found himself handcuffed to his hospital bed, with a police officer on guard outside the door.
It would take almost a year for the District Attorneys Office to drop all charges against Dwayne Campbell, and some months after that for Campbells lawyer to get his arrest record completely expunged. Today, Campbell still has a bullet lodged at the base of his skull that doctors are afraid to remove for fear of paralyzing him. Another bullet is still in his forearm because removing it might cripple his arm. Once a scholarship-winning basketball player in the Police Athletic League, Campbell is now permanently disabled from his job as a cable television installer. And although he wants to return to work on a business degree at Peirce Junior College, he complains that the pain pills hes forced to take wreak havoc on his ability to concentrate. "Im not the person I used to be," he says softly.
Campbells Norristown-based attorney, Garrett D. Page, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, claiming that the Police Departments policies and procedures directly invited his clients close brush with death. Pages legal complaint asserts damages of $100 million. The trial is slated to begin on Jan. 21 in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
Minutes before his life was changed forever, Dwayne Campbell had been driving south on Ridge Avenue, when, in his words, he "eased by" on the right side of a car stopped for a traffic light at Ridge and Susquehanna. Campbell says he went through the intersection as the light was changing from red to green.
Waiting at the red light inside a 1987 Plymouth Gran Fury were two rookie officers working a plainclothes burglary detail out of the 22nd Police District. Thomas Hood, the man witnesses would identify only as a white male in a hockey jersey, had graduated the police academy just nine months earlier. His partner that night, Anthony Swinton, was even greener, having left the academy a full five months after Hood.
Hood, who was driving, would later tell Internal Affairs investigators that he started following Dwayne Campbells white Mercury because the car had been speeding and he suspected its license plate tag had expired.
It would later turn out that the Mercury Mystique, which belonged to Campbells grandmother, was properly licensed and registered. But even if the car had had no license plate at all, Philadelphia police regulations mandate that plainclothes officers should routinely call in marked police to make traffic stops in all but the most dire of circumstances.
"I felt so betrayed. It was like a nightmare."
The reason for such a regulation is fairly obvious in the Campbell case. Campbell was a law-abiding citizen who had nothing to fear from police. He panicked and fled the scene because he was afraid Hood and Swinton werent the police.
At their subsequent Internal Affairs interviews, both Hood and Swinton claimed they had held up their badges for Campbell to see as they emerged from their car. Hood said he shouted "Police! Turn it off!" several times. But Campbell told investigators he never saw any badges and heard nothing since his windows were rolled up and he had music playing on the radio. He said he tried to get away once he saw Hood reach for his weapon.
A private investigator hired by Campbells attorney has since secured statements from three eyewitnesses that back up Campbells version of events. But even without those witnesses, the police investigation concluded that Hood had been "overly aggressive" by deliberately putting himself in danger and then using deadly force to shoot his way out. Hood had not only fired at Campbells car when it was moving toward him, the investigation concluded, but fired twice more as the car was passing him, and yet again as it was pulling away.
For "improper use of deadly force," Police Commissioner John Timoney disciplined Hood with a 30-day suspension, the maximum allowable penalty short of firing.
Although he and other members of the force are forbidden to comment directly on Dwayne Campbells civil suit, Timoney says that during his decades with the New York Police Department, he became intimately familiar with the perils brought on by overly aggressive plainclothes police. "Cops are too brave for their own good, and they put themselves in harms way unnecessarily," he says. In fact, Timoney can recall at least three instances in which plainclothes New York police officers shot and killed suspects who later turned out to be their fellow plainclothes officers.
Police sources confirm there have been some recent changes in department practices and policies that might have prevented Campbells shooting. Plainclothes rookies, for instance, are better trained and more closely supervised now.
The most significant change, however, is the new regulation that all Philadelphia police officers, plainclothes or uniformed, are now forbidden to fire at moving vehicles unless someone in the vehicle is firing a gun at them.
Timoney says some cops have bristled at this newest policy change, although it has stood the test of time in New York for almost 30 years. "Sometimes I get people saying, What if the cars coming right at me?" Timoney says. "I tell them, Look, if youve got tire tracks on you, youre OK. But if you jump out of the way, and that cars got bullet holes in the back window, youre in trouble."
Timoney claims that he goes to roll calls and implores police officers that when they encounter dangerous situations, "Use defensive tactics. Take cover. Dont rush in." Yet two months after he arrived in Philadelphia in March of 1998, the department had a near-tragedy like the ones in New York a West Philadelphia plainclothes officer, looking for a "male black with gun," squeezed off 16 shots at another plainclothes officer from a neighboring police district.
Timoney acknowledges that this last incident may be partly a product of the departments longtime struggle with racial profiling. Even among black officers, Timoney points out, "We have these preconceived notions that a black guy with a gun is a perp, but a white guy with a gun is an off-duty officer."
And although it never came to light during the internal investigation, Garrett Page has a theory that Dwayne Campbell just might have come close to being racially profiled to death.
On the floor of Hood and Swintons red Plymouth Fury, Page says there was a "wanted" poster depicting a dangerous fugitive who was approximately the same age and complexion as Dwayne Campbell. Was the heroic prospect of nabbing a wanted felon the real reason Hood and Swinton went after Campbells car without calling for backup? Page says he intends to find out.
"Theyve never declared they thought Dwayne was this guy," says Page. "But its interesting that there on their car floor is a poster of a guy who looks more like him than unlike him."