On Aug. 31, 2010, Fernando Echevarria was walking near the corner of York and Leithgow streets in North Philly when he saw Jose Vargas, a friend from the neighborhood, in the back of a police car. He stopped to check it out: Vargas’ face, he says, looked beaten up. Then, Echevarria claims, Police Officer Eric Burke told him to move along. He walked a few houses’ distance away; there, two women told him that Burke had “messed” Vargas up pretty badly.
As Echevarria watched — according to a lawsuit he filed against the city — Burke and another officer took Vargas out of the car, pulled his pants down and began an invasive public search. Echevarria took out his phone to videotape, but Burke approached, saying, “Didn’t I tell you to leave?” Echevarria says he turned to walk away, but Burke knocked him down, handcuffed him and scraped his head against the ground. Then, according to the suit, Burke stomped on his skull.
“What he did was wrong,” says Echevarria, who declined to further discuss the incident with City Paper. And it wasn’t over yet.
Burke placed him in the back of a squad car, drove about six blocks away, and told Echevarria to “get the fuck out.” Then, he says, Burke punched him in the face. A police van transported Echevarria, bleeding from his face, to Temple University Episcopal Hospital. He was treated for “abrasions, facial and scalp contusions, and 1.2-inch left-earlobe laceration.”
Here’s what Echevarria didn’t know that day: All of this had allegedly happened before.
Five months earlier and just one block away, Burke had allegedly administered a fierce beating to Anthony Abrams, a psychologist who said he was looking for a client near the corner of Fifth and York. Like Echevarria, Abrams claimed that the violence against him was brutal and unprovoked — and culminated in Burke stomping on his head. And like Echevarria, a man who tried to videotape Abrams’ beating was told by Burke to hand over his cell phone, witnesses claimed. Unlike Echevarria, that man got away.
As City Paper reported in the previous installment of our Excessive Force series, Philly paid $13 million in 2011 alone in legal settlements in police-related cases, including to alleged victims of abuse. And more lawsuits are ongoing, including one recently filed by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing police of intimidating and arresting people for videotaping them in action. That financial drain has, however, failed to stem the alledged brutality against suspects and passersby.
Despite various checks — which include an Internal Affairs Division charged with investigating civilian and other complaints; a three-officer Police Board of Inquiry panel that hears Internal Affairs findings and doles out discipline to fellow officers; the parallel (but perhaps toothless) investigative efforts of the civilian Police Advisory Commission; and the ultimate consequence of criminal charges by the District Attorney — impunity seems to be the rule.
That is to say, Eric Burke is not alone — but he does appear to be a case in point. His personnel file includes an unusually large number of “use of force” reports, sometimes against handcuffed civilians. It also features an act of insubordination to a commanding officer and an Internal Affairs finding that he severely assaulted a civilian, Abrams. Since joining the force on April 23, 2007, Burke has shown signs of a hot temper and a penchant for kicking already-beaten suspects in the head. And yet he is still a Philadelphia police officer, working out of the 26th District and patrolling the streets of North Philly, Kensington and Fishtown.
If there is a lesson to be culled from Burke’s file, it may be this: The Philadelphia Police Department and the city of Philadelphia have no system in place to meaningfully discipline bad cops. Until they do, there’s little to protect civilians from violence at their hands.
In 2010, Anthony Abrams’ case received widespread media attention, including reports by Fox 29’s Jeff Cole displaying photos of the psychologist’s battered face and locating the witnesses who would later testify about the beating. The case seemed remarkable: a white professional from the suburbs savagely beaten by a Philly police officer.
“He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m a psychologist. I’m trying to find a client of mine,’” Abrams testified in June 2011, before a rare hearing of the barely staffed Police Advisory Commission (PAC). When Abrams — a researcher for a federally funded addiction study — couldn’t locate the client, he said, he paid a woman $20 to seek her out. Burke did not believe this: “He immediately slammed me to the ground, put his boot against my head and said, ‘You tell me what you’re doing here or I’m going to kick your fucking head in.’”
“And then,” Abrams continued, “he began stomping my head with his boot.” Three witnesses testified to observing an assault they considered unprovoked.
Abrams had a titanium plate surgically inserted to repair his crushed eye socket.
Burke’s version of the story was this: He saw Abrams hand money to a woman and thought he was buying drugs. But he only punched Abrams once, after Abrams pushed him. Later Abrams was taken to the hospital. There — according to the testimony of Sgt. Andrew Yaletsko, who is now an Internal Affairs investigator — Abrams confessed to hitting Burke and stated that heroin was his “drug of choice.”
Yet even the Internal Affairs Division, which often fails to sustain citizen allegations against police, found that Burke had “physically abused” Abrams. It concluded that “photographs of Mr. Abrams’ injuries, along with the statements from independent witnesses who gave accounts of how P/O Burke punched and kicked Mr. Abrams numerous times … revealed that excessive force was applied.”
The Police Board of Inquiry ultimately allowed Burke to plead guilty to conduct unbecoming of an officer. The sentence? A written “reprimand.”
PAC executive director Kelvyn Anderson says that Capt. Martin Derbyshire, who at the time prosecuted cases before the board, told him he could not press tougher charges because the witnesses, who had already testified twice, did not show up at the disciplinary hearing. In any case, a sanction from the Police Board of Inquiry is easily appealed to an arbitrator, which often leads to sentences being overturned — or at least to dragging out cases for years. “Good luck finding a witness who remembers what happened who’s going to be available to actually testify,” Anderson tells CP. The PAC, says Anderson, has urged Internal Affairs to begin videotaping testimony for that reason; so far, they haven’t obliged.
Just as problematic for Derbyshire’s case was Abrams’ alleged admissions to Yaletsko.
And that turned out to be no small matter: On Jan. 16 of this year, Abrams was found dead in his car near his Jenkintown office, of an apparent drug overdose. Family reported he had a history of drug addiction, says Jenkintown Police Chief Albert DiValentino.
Still, the fact remains: Whatever Abrams was doing on that corner, three witnesses verified that he was assaulted by the officer.
The PAC, which dedicated one of just three 2011 hearings to Abrams’ case, has not yet released its findings. Yet it did send a letter to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey on May 6, 2010, asking that Burke “be placed on restricted duty pending the outcome” of the Internal Affairs investigation. “We want to take those officers and put them in a position where they can’t get into further trouble,” says Anderson.
The recommendation to take Burke off the street — months before he allegedly assaulted Echevarria — apparently went unheeded. Ramsey was unavailable for an interview.
The city has paid dearly: $15,000 to settle Echevarria’s case and $40,000 to settle with Vargas, who claims that Burke punched him in the face twice while handcuffed — after a second officer had kicked him the head. Abrams settled for $285,000 in taxpayer funds.
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.
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.”