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.