George Floyd protests

10 times Philly police were in the national spotlight for bad behavior

In one 2015 incident, officers were cleared in the killing of a Black man pulled over for a traffic violation.

Police line up protesters after tear gas was used on I-676 in Philadelphia on June 1

Police line up protesters after tear gas was used on I-676 in Philadelphia on June 1

Emma Lee / WHYY
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A lifelong Fishtowner stood with about 30 people behind a wall of police, opposite a Tuesday rally decrying neighborhood residents who’d shown up the night before with bats. The rally was also connected to the sweeping protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

Talking to Billy Penn, the Fishtown resident wondered aloud why the protests were in Philly.

“This didn’t even happen here,” Clifford, who did not give his last name, said of Floyd’s death. “Why are we picking on the cops in Philadelphia?”

West Philly native Sam Sessoms helped organize a different march down 52nd Street earlier that same day. He said and others protested in Philly because people of color here are subject to police harassment at any time.

“We just want everybody to be aware and understand, no matter how good we become in basketball, no matter how rich we become, we still gotta deal with things like this on a daily basis,” said Sessoms, who plays basketball at Penn State.

Officers have tried unique ways to integrate themselves more deeply into the community locally. Nur Ali Baukman is a singing cop who’s held karaoke sessions on the corner of 52nd and Market. Jai Gordon is a Philadelphia officer who opened a gym in the Southwest Philly neighborhood where she grew up.

Still, Philly has its share of serious police issues.

There are cases of corruption. There’s documented police brutality. And there’s the insidious arbitration process that’s been criticized by department top brass for its ability to allow fired cops back on the job.

Just this week, a high-ranking PPD commander linked to narcotics scandals was videotaped roughing up protesters on two separate occasions. He will face aggravated assault charges, the DA said — but the last time there was an investigation into this officer’s misconduct, he stayed on the force.

All of these things are a strain on Philadelphia’s police-community relations.

Here are 10 times in the last decade when PPD caught the world’s attention for all the wrong reasons.

Sgt. shoots himself, blames imaginary Black men

A month after Sgt. Robert Ralston reported he was shot on patrol in West Philly by an African American male assailant in 2010, he admitted he’d made the whole thing up. Ralston did sustain a gunshot wound to the shoulder. However, it was self-inflicted.

His tall tale led to a significant search effort for the culprit, and earned the city at least one lawsuit after an Overbrook family said officers burst into their home at gunpoint with no warrant looking for the nonexistent suspect. The case was settled with confidential terms, the family’s lawyer told Billy Penn in an email.

Why’d he do it? Officials at the time speculated Ralston wanted an assignment change or some sort of heroic recognition.

Instead, he was condemned by top brass, fired, and forced to repay the police department for the cost of the manhunt. Ralston wasn’t charged criminally, though, because his confession came in exchange for immunity.

Officer dismissed for misconduct gets his job back, sues city

PPD social media videos now regularly go viral, but Lt. Jonathan Josey II stars in an early, different kind of example. In a clip titled “Philadelphia Police Brutality,” Josey can be seen striking a woman to the ground during the 2012 Puerto Rican Day parade.

Police reports state a group of people were spraying drinks at officers — and the woman involved can be seen holding a water bottle in the video. The woman, Aida Guzman, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, charges that were ultimately dismissed. She also won a $75k settlement against the city for Josey’s actions.

Josey, then a 19-year PPD veteran, was dismissed from the force, and charged with simple assault. He was acquitted.

In 2013, he was reinstated as a Philadelphia police officer and then battled with the city as he pressed for promotion in the years that followed. In 2018, Josey sued the city in federal court, seeking damages for emotional distress, among other things. That case was dismissed.

Arrested and acquitted: 6 narcotics officers subject of FBI investigation

In summer 2014, the FBI charged six PPD narcotics officers with drug dealing, robbery, kidnapping and RICO conspiracy. The officers were described as having operated a ring of criminal terror, targeting drug dealers. They were alleged to have stolen $500k in property and cash between 2006 and 2012.

Proceedings unfurled dramatically, but not before then-DA Seth Williams (who was later jailed on his own corruption charges) sought to dismiss hundreds of cases that hinged on work from the narc crew.

Officers Michael Spicer, Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser were acquitted of all charges by a jury in 2015. They were reinstated to the force, got $90k in back pay, and sued top city officials for defamation. Meanwhile, a seventh officer who testified against his coworkers and pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges got more than three years jail time.

Despite the officers’ acquittals, Philly courts went on to reverse more than 800 convictions that had involved their testimony.

‘Who killed Brandon Tate-Brown?’

Activists like former City Council candidate Asa Khalif asked the question that became a rallying cry after a PPD officer whose name wasn’t initially released shot and killed Brandon Tate-Brown in December 2014.

Tate-Brown’s killing happened around the time a Ferguson, Mo., officer killed Michael Brown, and an NYPD officer killed Eric Garner. In Philly, the city was slow to release details and surveillance video from the incident. Police said Tate-Brown was stopped for driving with his lights off, but unofficial video emerged of Tate-Brown with headlights on.

When the video evidence was released in June 2015 showing Tate-Brown running behind the trunk of his vehicle, it didn’t align with officers’ original narrative that Tate-Brown was lunging for a gun inside the vehicle when he was shot in his back.

Then-DA Seth Williams declined to press charges against the shooter, Officer Nicholas Carrelli. In 2017, Tate Brown’s mother Tanya Brown-Dickerson dropped her civil suit against the city, citing her own declining health.

PPD criticized in DOJ report, implements reforms

In the middle of the Brandon Tate-Brown controversy, the Department of Justice found PPD suffered from a “lack of transparency.” The report was commissioned in 2013 by then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey and also noted a rift between police and the communities they serve.

The report recommended Philly offer more de-escalation training, more training on non-lethal force, and found PPD averaged 49 officer-involved shootings per year at that time.

Two years later, under the leadership of former PPD Commissioner Richard Ross, Philly’s police department had instituted nearly every DOJ recommendation, including creating an interdepartmental officer-involved shooting investigation unit.

First time in 20 years: PPD officer charged with murder

David Jones was killed by former officer Ryan Pownall in June 2017. Pownall was transporting crime victims to the Special Victims Unit when he stopped Jones for riding a dirt bike. Police and an eyewitness say Jones dropped a gun and began running away when Pownall shot him in the back.

Pownall was fired after an internal investigation found Jones did not pose a threat to officers when he was killed. In 2018, he became the first Philadelphia police officer in nearly two decades to be charged with murder. Jones’ family also won a $1 million settlement against the city.

The officers’ trial is on hold indefinitely while the DAO challenges the interpretation of the state’s use of force law.

DA releases officer ‘Do Not Call’ list

Twenty-nine cops were named on a “do not call” list put together by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, which used it to avoid summoning the officers as trial witnesses because their alleged misconduct made testimony suspect.

Though the list was started before his term, DA Larry Krasner is the one who released the document, making the officers’ identities, and accompanying misconduct allegations, public.

The Starbucks arrest heard ’round the world

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, two Black men, were waiting for a potential business partner at a Rittenhouse-area Starbucks when they were asked by a manager to leave because they hadn’t ordered anything. That manager soon called the police, who arrested the pair. One video of the April 2018 arrest has been viewed more than 11 million times on Twitter.

Then-Commissioner Ross said his officers did nothing wrong because they were responding to a trespassing call from a business and had an “obligation” to remove the men from the premises. He later apologized, saying he didn’t know much about the coffee shop’s sit-and-chill business model. The city also took action, including launching a PPD Internal Affairs investigation.

The incident prompted protests of the Starbucks on 18th and Spruce streets, and white customers commented that they’d never been asked to leave under similar circumstances.

Starbucks’ CEO promptly apologized to the men, changed company policy and closed all 8,000 stores nationwide to conduct a racial sensitivity training. Additionally, the manager who called the police on the men was fired.

‘Facebook cops’

A national effort by the Plain View Project showcased more than 300 Philadelphia police officers cited by the initiative for misogynistic, racist, xenophobic or otherwise incendiary social media postings on social media. Dozens of officers were placed on desk duty during an investigation and four were ultimately fired.

Civilian complaint records obtained exclusively by Billy Penn and WHYY showed nearly half of the so-called “Facebook cops” had sustained at least one civilian complaint. Some had a laundry list of them.

Officials sought to fire 15 officers for their social media postings, but 11 were able to resign first. At the end of last year, one officer mentioned in the database, Edward Pisarek, was promoted.

A high-ranking official with extensive history of misconduct

After the city tried unsuccessfully to fire former Chief Inspector Carl Holmes, and paid out a $1 million settlement against him, the disgraced PPD official was criminally charged for sexually assaulting three women.

This was after nine women officers sued the department in August 2019 for a culture of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. The suit pinpointed Holmes, and led former Commissioner Ross to abruptly resign.

A stunning Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed that former Chief Inspector Carl Holmes had sexually assaulted women subordinates for more than a decade, but his job was repeatedly protected by the system.

Want some more? Explore other George Floyd protests stories.

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