Police brutality scandals come and go. And little changes. In 1995, five officers were convicted of planting drug evidence, lying on the witness stand and beating and stealing from suspects. The so-called “39th District scandal” spawned a class-action suit by civil-rights groups and, eventually, the creation of the Police Integrity & Accountability Office. The office, which was led by Ellen Green-Ceisler, now a judge in the Court of Common Pleas, had unprecedented access to police officers and files. Green-Ceisler issued a handful of scathing reports, including a 2003 investigation of disciplinary processes.
In the three years before the report’s publication, she found, nearly half of officers, supervisors and commanders found by Internal Affairs to have violated policy or engaged in misconduct were never formally disciplined. Of allegations sustained by Internal Affairs from January 2000 to May 2002 — and most were not sustained — 46 percent of officers who “clearly warranted formal discipline … received none.” Penalties that were doled out were often “astonishingly lenient.”
Green-Ceisler found that the system, which is largely intact today, is based on an “incestuous” relationship among officers and those charged with disciplining them that “frequently prevents the impartial and objective functioning.” She concluded that an independent disciplinary body was needed.
Police brass dismissed her findings during a formal review process. Then they smeared her in public. Commissioner Johnson fumed that the report was “false” and “disgraceful.” Mayor John Street called its author “politically motivated.”
The office quietly dissolved after Green-Ceisler left in 2005. No other such report has been issued since. The Police Department and the city deal with the lawsuits, criticize press reports and move on. The Philadelphia Police Department remains unpoliced.
The city denied City Paper’s public-records request for the “settlement memoranda” that explain the rationale for settling lawsuits. But the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 5 has its own take on the matter. President John McNesby told the Daily News recently, “The city settles lawsuits for no reason.”
There are very few police officers that the FOP will not defend. In this instance, McNesby was commenting on why various officers featured in the Daily News’ Pulitzer-winning 2009 investigation “Tainted Justice” — cops who had allegedly fabricated search warrants, ransacked stores for merchandise and sexually assaulted women — are still on the force.
The FOP, which did not respond to requests for comment, supported Officer Michael Paige, who allegedly raped North Philadelphia man John Harris in 2007, forcing him to perform oral sex in his squad car. Paige contended that Harris had framed him, obtaining a sample of his semen from a used condom. A civil-court jury ordered Paige to pay Harris $165,000, but he was acquitted by a criminal-court judge. Arbitrators returned Paige to the force after he was fired in 2007.
Meanwhile, Josey, who was caught on camera punching Aida Guzman, is a rare case of Ramsey firing an officer for brutality accusations. Josey is appealing with the FOP’s support; they even threw him a benefit party.
“The FOP kind of runs the show,” says Rightmyer, Echevarria’s lawyer.
In December, Ramsey canceled plans to allow reporters to attend disciplinary hearings for Officer Elaine P. Thomas, accused of falsifying home deeds. The FOP had threatened a mass protest.
On Aug. 18, 2009, Sgt. Christine McShea assigned Officer Burke to prisoner detail at a hospital. Burke, she alleged, “refused to go” and was “disrespectful and indignant,” eventually walking out of the Operations Room. Burke was accused of insubordination.
Burke’s use-of-force reports, released to Echevarria’s lawyer, echo the various lawsuits’ allegations: a bad temper and a pattern of violence against suspects, including those already in handcuffs.
Burke reported using a baton to strike “an unknown individual in the legs” in response to a “crowd refusing to disperse.” Another day, Burke was placing a handcuffed Jose Vega into a wagon “when he began to move side to side, disallowing police to put him into the wagon, and then hit his face on the wagon.” Oops.
Burke also pepper-sprayed a handcuffed suspect named Dante Custis who, according to his use-of-force report, had “gotten his handcuffs in ront [sic] of himself and tried to leave wagon.” Another time, a crowd formed near Burke, who was investigating an arson. Burke reported that he told them to disperse, but one man refused to leave and then resisted arrest. He used “control holds” — a term referring to various means of subduing suspects — to handcuff him.
A man named John Kruszewski was in the hospital getting a CT scan. He was cuffed and peeing in a cup. Burke says Kruszewski refused to put the cup on the table and get back in bed, and then said, “If you come near me, I’ll take your gun.” Kruszewski “swung his arms at the officer” — his handcuffed arms — and Burke punched him in the face.
These people, Abrams included, may or may not have been involved in criminal activity before encountering Burke. But they experienced a level of violence that seemed to exceed the norm. Without systemic change, it’s a pattern likely to continue unbroken.
Jamie Luis Lopez, one of the total strangers who testified on Abrams’ behalf, told Internal Affairs that he hoped his testimony would help prevent future brutality.
“The reason why I was doing this is I was a victim of a cop; they beat me up. And a cop shouldn’t do that.”