The city does little to discipline the officers it spends so much to defend in court.
Street-corner beatings, by many accounts, are normal for people caught up in Philly’s drug war. Observers describe an expectation of impunity among officers and a deep-seated cynicism among civilians.
“The whole supervisory function, it’s not working,” says lawyer John Rightmyer, who represented Echevarria. “I don’t think anyone goes into the academy wanting to beat the crap out of people … [but] they start to learn that you can do certain things and it doesn’t matter. Nothing really bad is going to happen to you.”
Echevarria was charged with making terroristic threats, failing to disperse and disorderly conduct. According to his complaint, he was held in jail until Sept. 3, when bail money was finally scraped together. The next day, Echevarria returned to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a closed-head injury and post-concussion syndrome. The charges were dismissed on March 10, 2011, after Burke failed to show up at court for the third time.
Vargas, according to the complaint, was ultimately charged with obstructing a highway. That charge was also dismissed.
Charges filed against Abrams, including aggravated assault, were likewise dropped. Critics say that those who suffer police abuse are frequently charged with assaulting the officer to cover up the attack, and that one officer almost never testifies against another.
“The city needs to be far more aggressive about penetrating the code of silence so that the good officers out there are encouraged to come forward and report misconduct,” says civil-rights attorney Paul Messing. “In 40 years of practice, I’ve seen that happen once. And in that case, the officer … had retired. I think many officers would like to be able to do that.”
At the base of that culture, says University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois, is a “level of routinized violence that’s just taken for granted by police officers in that part of Philadelphia.”
He should know. In 2008, Bourgois, who researches drug corners in Kensington, was allegedly clubbed to the ground and kicked in the ribs by police. Bourgois says his tape recordings were erased, and he suffered a fractured rib. He says he was arrested and charged with possession of two $10 packets of heroin police found on the ground. Bourgois says he passed urine, blood and lie-detector tests and had his DNA swabbed. Police dropped the charges and Bourgois, eager to continue his federally funded research, did not file a lawsuit. There was never any investigation into where those two packets of heroin came from or whether they might have been planted there.
The police appeared unconcerned about the alleged abuse. It was just a case of mistaken identity, according to Capt. Francis Healy, a special assistant to Commissioner Ramsey.
“The professor worked undercover … with very poor people,” Healey says. “He dressed like them, he looks like them, that’s how he builds a level of trust with them. Apparently at some point in time, the professor got either too close or was involved near a narcotics site [of] police activity, and he was taken to the ground, and taken to the ground hard.”
He blames Bourgois for failing to notify police of his research. “What happened was he was doing this type of work and never thought that it was important to notify the local police,” Healy tells CP. “Once he made that connection with me and I made the connection to the proper narcotics people, there’s been no further incidents.” Healy personally visited with narcotics officers, showing them the professor’s picture.
In 2010, District Attorney Seth Williams made headlines when he charged Officer Frank Tepper with the murder of 21-year-old William Panas Jr. Tepper was drunk and off duty when he shot Panas outside his Port Richmond home. The DA won a conviction last April, drawing favorable comparisons to his predecessor Lynne Abraham, who was accused of being soft on police violence. Yet it’s not clear that Williams has broken the mold.
The District Attorney’s Office arrested 40 officers from whenWilliams took office in 2010 through December 2012. But Williams has charged just two on-duty officers with violent crimes against civilians: Keith Corley, who was convicted of indecent exposure and official oppression in 2011, and Jonathan Josey, who is facing a simple-assault charge for punching Aida Guzman at last September’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. Online video of the incident went viral.
Several police with one time high-profile abuses remain on the force. One is Officer Kenneth Fleming, currently assigned to the Northwest Detectives. In 1995, Judge Anne Lazarus complained that Fleming and Officer Jean Langan had burst into her courtroom and punched a court officer in the face, yelling, “You can’t do anything to us. We’re fucking cops!”
Fleming received a short suspension.
“What particularly concerns me,” Lazarus wrote to Internal Affairs, “is that, if these officers show so little respect for a court when the judge is actually sitting on the bench, what must their behavior be like on the streets?”
Like this: Fleming was once suspended after partially strip-searching a man in public in 1999 and later lying to Internal Affairs about the incident. Fleming also cost the city and airport $750,000 from a lawsuit filed by Minister Jorge Granados, who underwent spinal surgery three days after Fleming allegedly body-slammed him at the airport in June 2003.
Though the Police Board of Inquiry exonerated Fleming, former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson passed him over for a promotion to detective. Fleming sued in March 2007, claiming that Johnson denied him the promotion “because Plaintiff is a white male” and as retaliation for speaking out. He had support from the Fraternal Order of Police.
Today, Fleming is a detective. In October 2011, a man named Douglas Gangloff alleged that Fleming “grabbed him and pulled him into the office, slammed his head against the wall three times, and punched him three times in the right side of his face” when he came to report a stolen ATV. Fleming arrested him for disorderly conduct. An Internal Affairs investigation did not sustain Gangloff’s charges.
Or take Officer Thomas Schaffling, today on duty in the 26th District alongside Burke.
Multiple plaintiffs alleged that on Aug. 9, 2008, Schaffling chased a fleeing narcotics suspect into a baby shower where he choked and later beat the suspect, recklessly brandished his gun and beat the suspect’s father and another attendee with a club. The city settled for $231,720. The lawsuit pointed out that Schaffling had an astonishing 14 Internal Affairs complaints, mostly for physical abuse, and racked up 32 use-of-force incidents and three police shootings in just two years.
One such incident was the nationally infamous May 2008 beating by a dozen or more Philadelphia Police Officers of three murder suspects dragged from their car, caught live by a Fox 29 helicopter. (An arbitrator reversed the firing of several officers involved.)
Schaffling even managed to draw a lawsuit from then-state Rep. Jewell Williams, now Philadelphia sheriff, who alleged that the officer falsely arrested and verbally abused him in March 2009. That incident was part of a class-action lawsuit against the Police Department that resulted in a new monitoring system for the city’s stop-and-frisk program.
Finally, Richard Checchia and Stanley Dawejko allege that on March 26, 2010, at Wellington and Torresdale, Schaffling walked up to Checchia’s car and kicked in a fog light. Schaffling, who they say appeared drunk, then announced he was a cop, threatened to kill them, assaulted them and then shot Checchia. Cops arrived, but it was Checchia and Dawejko who were arrested. The city later paid Checchia $60,000. The DA failed to charge Schaffling. When the city decided not to pay his legal bills, Schaffling sued the city.