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Philadelphia Story

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The stomping of fugitive Thomas Jones in Philadelphia captured the attention of TV viewers across the nation last week, but the episode of high-amp policing carries special significance for Los Angeles. Four years ago the City of Brotherly Love took the course now being contemplated by the City of Angels, a compromise stab at reforming roughriding cops through the introduction of federal court supervision.

In fact, for all the notoriety garnered by the LAPD, it was Philadelphia that wrote the script for the Rampart scandal — the stealing of drug money, the frame-ups, the dozens of convicts whose sentences have to be reversed, and the millions of dollars in civil damages. Rogue cops at the problem precinct becoming the baddest gang in the ’hood? Old news to Philadelphians. Same plot, different characters — except for Willie Williams, who plays a cameo role (supporting actor, one could say, except that in neither original nor remake does he actually act). Even the antidote prescribed by civil rights groups — imposing computerized complaint counts to weed out “problem officers” — is straight out of the Philly playbook.

Now Los Angeles stands at a crossroads Philadelphia officials arrived at four years back. Law-enforcement credibility here is, by its own admission, in crisis. The LAPD’s failure — despite the revelations of the Christopher Commission and, later, Mark Fuhrman — to achieve meaningful change has made clear the limits of the department’s capacity to reform itself. By contrast, Sheriff Lee Baca’s bold moves to introduce civilian oversight of complaints and internal-affairs inquiries point toward â a new path. But they have found no echo in Parker Center or City Hall.

Instead, the LAPD and Chief Bernard Parks face the threat of civil rights litigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ). L.A. city leaders must soon decide whether to accept a consent decree mandating changes in police practices, or to maneuver for wiggle room, as Mayor Richard Riordan and Chief Parks prefer, with a looser “memorandum of understanding.” There’s also the hardball stance of resisting the feds, and incurring an onslaught of litigation both from the DOJ and from civil rights groups. As Los Angeles considers these options, it may prove enlightening to look back across the country to a city that’s been there before.

The Cradle of Liberty, the nation’s capital until 1800, Philadelphia remained one of America’s great cities through the middle of this century, when it was larger than Los Angeles, a center of insurance and publishing and host to two major-league baseball teams. Since then — and more sharply since the ’70s — disappearing jobs produced a declining standard of living and shrinking population. With the ascent of head-busting top cop Frank Rizzo to the mayoralty in 1972 — elected after promising to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” — both liberty and brotherly love hit the skids as well.

With their leader in the mayor’s chair, Philly’s finest had virtual carte blanche to straighten out the streets. This wasn’t always done by the manual. “Contempt of cop” — on duty or off — was often deemed an offense deserving corporal punishment. One study found the Philadelphia police 37 times more likely than New York City cops to shoot unarmed citizens leaving the scene of a nonviolent crime. In the years when the LAPD was proning out young blacks and browns by the hundred in South-Central, Philly’s cops were on the same page — going so far so often that three federal court decisions enjoined their “sweeps” in minority communities.

Free rein soon led to freewheeling corruption as well. In 1989 the department was shaken by the revelations of the “Five Squad” trial, in which six narcotics detectives were convicted of stealing drugs and extorting more than $400,000 from coke dealers in the early ’80s. The Five Squad (or “Captain’s men”) were relieved from regular schedules for aggressive, self-supervised work. This squad made the most of that liberty. “I’m not a racketeer,” one of them pleaded at his sentencing hearing.

Philadelphia’s police commissioner — as that city calls its police chief — at the time was none other than Willie Williams, who soon departed for L.A. Ineffectual there as here, Williams pledged, “This will never happen again.” Then, says attorney Alan Yatvin, “he didn’t do anything — it just went in the drawer.” Three other narcotics officers implicated and terminated won their jobs back after arbitration hearings in 1990.

Just a few years prior, Philadelphians were treated to the disastrous spectacle of the police assault on the M.O.V.E. cult. Determined to extract a clutch of dreadlocked vegetarians from a barricaded residence, police dropped a satchel of explosives from a helicopter, killing 11 (including five children) and starting a blaze that leveled 60 adjoining homes.

 

The department was in no shape to sustain another PR fiasco, and expected none from the 39th Precinct, a mixed-income area with a few rough spots but also home to the mayor and a U.S. senator. But just a week before the Rodney King beating, things began to come apart for the cops of the 39th, though their story, not captured on video, took a while longer to unfold.

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.

Philadelphia officials first looked at the tracking system in Pittsburgh (see sidebar), but “there was stuff in there that wasn’t relevant,” says Deputy Commissioner for Internal Affairs John Norris. The department, he adds, was paralyzed by procurement procedures, and stumbled in getting the $8.9 million in funds allocated — the same hurdles that thwarted officials in L.A. “Now I think we should have just got Pittsburgh’s system off the rack and made adjustments,” Norris concludes.

While waiting for the computer, the civil rights groups have assessed performance on the limited data available, scrutinizing overall patterns of enforcement rather than individual officers. In its first publicly released monitoring report, the ACLU analyzed a week’s pedestrian and car stops in four precincts in October ’97 and stops by the Narcotics Unit during all of August, almost 2,000 stops in all. Despite a written memorandum from the police commissioner a few months earlier warning that “There is no such thing as a ‘routine stop,’” and explaining how reasonable grounds for suspicion were required, a full third of the forms offered no explanation for the stop. Many gave inadequate reasons, such â as “was observed walking back & forth on highway” or simply, “above stopped for invest.” The commissioner’s brief law lesson on the Fourth Amendment clearly needed further reinforcement.

Serious problems remained on racial differences in enforcement as well. Though 54 percent of Philadelphians are white, according to the 1995 census (and, with many suburbanites driving to city jobs, the proportion of white drivers is likely higher) only 29 percent of the drivers stopped were Caucasians. In one precinct that was less than one-fifth African-American, blacks were subject to 64 percent of the stops. The statistical peculiarities were even more pronounced when the audit looked at “unexplained” stops, so it’s unlikely the skews can be explained by more expired tags or broken lights on minority cars.

A second monitoring report is scheduled for release later this summer. In the meantime, anecdotes and impressions form the only basis for judging the state of policing minorities in Philadelphia. A major celebrity with a minor injury was the subject of one widely publicized encounter.

Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier got his boxing start at a North Philly Police Athletic League gym and had always been a law-enforcement booster. In fact, he was returning from a police fund-raising banquet in New Jersey when his Jaguar was stopped for erratic driving one April ’98 night near his home.

A rookie patrolman threw him into a squad car where he sat cuffed for 45 minutes, disregarding his protests of pain from a longstanding “frozen shoulder” injury. Acquitted of DUI, Frazier filed civil charges for emotional and reputation damages and broke down in tears on the stand. The jury, not allowed to hear that the officer had incurred five complaints in his first 14 months, found against Frazier. “I’ll never be comfortable with Philadelphia police again,” the ex-champ says now.

Unlike Frazier, 20-year-old UPS worker Thomas Webb had never had his name in the paper in his life. He got a lot of ink, posthumously, due to a November ’98 struggle with two officers. Off-duty cop Terrance Jones fired a Glock into Webb’s chest after Webb allegedly ran from the area where Jones’ car had been broken into. Webb was unarmed.

A pending civil suit will determine whether this shooting was justifiable, but the city may think twice before it lets jurors hear about Officer Jones’ history. The 10-year veteran has already cost the city $2.2 million for the wounding of Carlos McLeod, a Good Samaritan he shot in the groin as McLeod lay on the ground with a shattered spine. McLeod had come to the assistance of a convenience-store clerk wounded by robbers, and then was mistaken for a robber by police when they arrived on the scene.

 

Two other civil rights suits had been brought against Jones, both settled in arbitration. As a rookie, Jones had been the subject of seven civilian complaints filed with Internal Affairs in the three-plus years preceding the McLeod shooting. The cases had a variety of dispositions, ranging from exoneration of McLeod to the allegations against him being partially sustained. If the computer system to “red flag” potential problem officers had been in effect earlier, Jones would have looked like Moscow on May Day.

Despite several such incidents, some Philadelphia plaintiffs remain guardedly optimistic. J. Wyatt Mondesire, president of the city’s NAACP, says definite progress has been made from the ’70s “when we had dog attacks, and a kid killed in handcuffs,” but “we’re not there yet.” There are still beatings and “rough-ups,” he says, but they are fewer and less violent.

Not everyone agrees. “Things never change in Philadelphia,” snorts Paul Conway, who heads homicide cases for the city’s public defender. And last week’s savage swarm of Thomas Jones by 12 or 15 officers discredits the notion that “reform” practices have taken root. Nor is the he-brought-it-on-himself rhetoric emanating from the department encouraging. One who won’t excuse the outburst of thuggery is Rochelle Bilal of Black Cops Against Police Brutality, who calls it a “disgrace — undermining our efforts to build rapport in the community.” Yet Bilal concedes there’s some “good news” as well. Change is incremental.

More broadly, there have been no new corruption revelations of any magnitude. Discipline appears to be tightening up — 1996 set a new yearly high for dismissals with 39; in 1997 that figure rose to 49. And in 1998 Commissioner Timoney ordered the “phasing out” of police blackjacks, and Deputy Commissioner Norris promised to examine all incidents of nightstick use to the head and face.

Another indicator: Timoney consolidated Internal Affairs in the spring of 1998 under a single chief, Deputy Commissioner Norris, and the following year added 10 more staff. Now, says Norris, including forced resignations, IA will probably get rid of close to 70 corrupt cops this â year, mostly for theft, hanging out with drug dealers and the like.

Norris contends the police union makes his job particularly difficult. They “will fight to the death to save even cops they hate,” he says. That point is quickly confirmed in a telephone conversation with Richard Costello, president of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police. Adopting an aggressive street-fighter tone, Costello denies that brutality or discrimination persists in the department. “We addressed [use of force] problems in the ’80s,” he maintains. “We cleaned up our act.”

As for the civil rights groups who sued the department, Costello challenged them directly. His fraternal order would agree to open its personnel files, he says, only if it had “access to ACLU’s records to determine if it was true they were financed by the porno industry and drug dealers.”

Has crime gone up, as critics of the agreement predicted it would if police were “handcuffed” in their practices? No one really knows — Commissioner Timoney found portions of his department’s crime statistics so unreliable that he retracted the 1998 figures already given to the FBI. A Philadelphia Inquirer series also questioned the official numbers, showing, for example, that numerous rapes had been downgraded to categories like “disturbance.”

One statistic that stands out — and contradicts the claim that officers are too constrained, too demoralized or too resentful to do their jobs: Arrests per officer have increased more than 20 percent from ’97 to ’99.

While the plaintiffs seem pleased with what they’ve achieved, the NAACP’s Mondesire attributes much of the progress to the reform commitment of the forceful new commissioner. The legal agreement, he says, improved use-of-force investigations and the complaint system, but it took Timoney to instill new attitudes in sergeants and supervisors. ACLU counsel Stefan Presser is the most upbeat, stressing the numerous tasks accomplished despite the long wait for computerizing complaints. Where past drug sweeps raised havoc, Presser concludes that a recent Timoney-run drug crackdown, “Operation Sunrise,” came off without dragging in innocent people; the ACLU received not a single complaint.

Even as he prepared to go back before Judge Dalzell last week to get a third extension on an oversight process that was supposed to end in 1998, ACLU counsel Presser voiced few regrets about having carried a burden the Department of Justice might have shouldered. “We never asked DOJ in — we knew Clinton wasn’t going to sue his friend [then-Mayor] Eddie Rendell. But if they had come in, it would have been DOJ’s vision of a solution.”

 

The DOJ vision for Los Angeles might be an appropriate one — Bill Lan Lee spent years here as counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — but LAPD watchdogs here worry that the department’s culture will be tough for outsiders to decipher. Constance Rice, a former colleague of Lee’s, advocates continued vigilance. Says Rice, “There may be a need for private civil action even if they get a pretty good decree.”

“It’s a relationship,” says lawyer Will Gonzalez of Philly’s Police Barrio Relations Project, “and like in all relationships there’s a lot of compromising.” If he had it do over again, says Gonzalez, he’d insist on firmer deadlines. In the end, he echoes Rice, contending that you have to pressure the police on multiple fronts — “The agreement is only one tool we use.”

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