By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As in the King incident, this involved a young black man out for a night’s entertainment. Arthur Colbert, however, got his beating not by running away from the police, but by walking up to them. Lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, he decided to approach an idling police van to ask directions. The two officers reacted to the Temple University student’s inquiry with a question of their own: “What are you doing here, nigger?”
It went downhill from there. After a quick pat-down and car search, they directed him to his destination. But minutes after Colbert picked up a lady friend, they reappeared. Convinced he was a drug dealer they’d been looking for called “Hakim,” the officers administered a long interrogation punctuated by blows with heavy flashlights; then, in an effort to get Colbert to “confess” his real identity, topped it off with a few rounds of Russian roulette with an empty pistol. Since he wasn’t Hakim, or a drug dealer, this escalation proved ineffective. So the officers stashed Colbert in a detention room, took his house keys and searched his apartment just outside the city limits. Finding nothing incriminating there, the duo released him after the six-hour ordeal with the warning that “We’ll kill you” if he was seen in the area again.
Despite his frightening night, Colbert returned to the 39th station house and filed a complaint with Lieutenant John Gallagher, the platoon supervisor on duty. Reluctant as he was to believe it, Gallagher found Colbert’s tale had a ring of truth. For one thing, although there was no record of any detention, he accurately described the color of the detention room, which Gallagher had just had painted pink after hearing that hue soothed the emotionally disturbed. â
As the King beating played and replayed on TV screens across America later that week, the internal-investigation honchos began to feel they had a problem on their hands. After the dismissed-officers’ photos appeared in the newspaper, the department was inundated with similar stories of brutality and groundless arrests. Neighborhood residents came in to ask about valuables held since their arrest, only to find the items had never been checked in.
As the probe deepened, one officer after another turned, and eventually five cops went to jail for terms of up to 13 years. Out of this scandal, 1,500 arrests had to be reviewed and 44 civil complaints were filed, which have cost Philadelphia almost $5 million. And the litigation’s not over yet.
In September 1996, after eight months’ negotiation, the city agreed to a “settlement and monitoring agreement” with the ACLU, the NAACP and the Police Barrio Relations Project — a deal closely akin to the one Riordan and company want from U.S. Department of Justice civil rights division chief Bill Lan Lee. While the DOJ played no role in setting the terms and does not monitor performance, the Philadelphia agreement was struck under the supervision of a federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Stewart Dalzell. As officials in L.A. are demanding, the settlement is not a “consent decree” which would subject the city to contempt penalties for noncompliance; if Philadelphia fails to live up to its terms, the plaintiffs’ only leverage lies in following through with the threatened lawsuit.
Philadelphia agreed (as L.A.’s Christopher Commission advised) to develop a computerized “early warning” system for tracking complaints and identifying “at risk” officers. The deal also created an integrity-and-accountability officer (comparable to the inspector general of L.A.’s Police Commission), who would audit and review the handling of particular cases and report directly to the police commissioner.
Major changes in the operation of Internal Affairs were promised, including the expansion of “sting” operations and a pledge to complete IA inquiries within 60 days. The plaintiff lawyers were to be paid by the city to monitor police department compliance, including reviews of data on stops and use-of-force incidents.
In its 28-page response filed with the court, the city repeatedly says it agrees with the plaintiffs’ proposals “in substance.” Rarely does it commit to compliance by any specific date, however. And in the year and a half that followed, change in Philadelphia mirrored the progress at the LAPD — reforms moved briskly on the department’s periphery, but moved glacially where real internal change was required.
Then in February 1998 came the appointment of a new broom from the Bronx as Police Commissioner: John Timoney, a 27-year NYPD veteran who rose from the ranks to act as right arm to Mayor Giuliani’s reform commissioner. Under Timoney’s hand, the department’s passive resistance came to an end. Not that he was a great fan of the agreement — he resented its invasion of his domain and discretion, says policing expert James Fyfe of Temple University. But Timoney shared many of the lawsuit’s goals, says Fyfe, because they would increase the department’s effectiveness in fighting crime.
Has the court agreement brought change to the Philly P.D.? The most telling evidence is that a key plank — a computerized tracking system of officer performance — is just going out for bids, almost four years behind schedule. As we have seen here — where such a system was mandated by voters in 1991 and federal funds were set aside for its development in 1998, with no action as of yet — something about tabulating police misbehavior seems more complex than say, mapping the human genome.