Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Philadelphia police, like many other police forces around the country, has earned the reputation of having a very tough attitude toward suspects, responding with violence to what officers perceive to be disrespect. As the PAC executive director told Human Rights Watch, "You cannot talk back to Philly cops."42 Many human rights abuses stem from this attitude, as verbal sparring quickly turns into physical attacks by police.
Officer John Baird: One product of the flawed internal affairs system was John Baird. In his deposition relating to the 39th District scandal, Baird stated, "I never feared an IAD investigation....[T]he way things were done, I mean, unless there is [sic] a whole lot of witnesses against you and a whole lot of pressure, you're not ever going to get found guilty of anything."43 Baird had been the subject of more than twenty complaints prior to pleading guilty to robbery, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to violate civil rights charges, yet received perfect job ratings throughout his career.44 In fact, investigations into Baird's actions, and those of other officers from the 39th District, only took place after one of the victims, Arthur Colbert, pursued his brutality and other complaints with the assistance of the public defender's office and, eventually, the U.S. Attorney's office.45 Colbert was stoppedby Baird and another officer in February 1991 and allegedly beaten and threatened with death if he did not provide information about his drug stash, even though there was no indication that he was dealing drugs.46 The investigation and prosecution of the officers proceeded only when one of the accused officers in the 39th District provided key information, and indictments soon followed.47
In his deposition, Baird claims an internal affairs detective told him he was not interested in doing civil rights cases because they are difficult. He claimed that he would never deny hitting people to IAD investigators. "On my brutality complaints, if I hit them, I usually hit them. I didn't deny if I hit them."48
Officer Rodney Hunt: Even though the city believed Officer Rodney Hunt was unsuitable to serve as a police officer, he remained on the force due to an arbitrator's decision. In two off-duty incidents in 1990 and 1991, Hunt shot and killed two men and wounded a woman bystander.49 On November 4, 1990, Hunt shot Sean Wilson several times after intervening in a bar fight; the bar was known as a drug trafficking and gambling center. Witnesses said that Wilson, who had shot at Hunt as the argument escalated, was shot while he was lying face down on the ground. According to a police abuse expert who examined the physical evidence, the witnesses were supported by the evidence: nine shots hit Wilson in the back, buttocks, and the back of the upper thigh, and forensic examination reportedly showed that at least one bullet hole in Wilson's jacket was made by a gun held rightnext to Wilson's body.50 Two of the exit wounds indicated that Wilson's body was pressed against a hard surface, such as the ground, when the bullets exited his body.51
Hunt had been the subject of other complaints, including one in 1990 claiming that when at a restaurant at 2:45 a.m., he and another officer got into a verbal dispute with other patrons.52 Hunt arrested a man at the restaurant for allegedly possessing a knife (it is unclear whether the knife existed); one of the complainants was convicted for disorderly conduct, and the complaint against Hunt was not sustained even though he allegedly pointed a gun at one of the complainants.
After the Sean Wilson shooting, Hunt was allowed to keep his gun. On March 24, 1991 - as a grand jury was investigating Wilson's death - Hunt killed another person in an off-duty dispute at a party.53 At a party at 3:00 a.m., Hunt shot a man and wounded a woman bystander after intervening in a fight. He claims two men had guns (one of the men admitted firing at him), so he shot fourteen times at them. In July 1991, Hunt was indicted for the Wilson shooting and dismissed from the department. (Prior to the indictment, he had perfect performance ratings.) He was acquitted of the murder charges, but Wilson's mother received $900,000 from the city in a settlement.54 He challenged his dismissal by arguing that it was a political reaction to publicity over the shooting and that the shooting was justified.55 Anarbitrator agreed, and Hunt was reinstated in 1994 with back pay; as of August 1997, he was working in the 2nd District.56
Officer Christopher Rudy: On November 20, 1993, Rudy was on duty but visiting friends and drinking alcohol at a warehouse.57 There had been a dispute between the warehouse owner and Frank Schmidt, who was accused of stealing items from the warehouse. Rudy, who was friendly with the owner, was at the warehouse when Schmidt telephoned about the dispute. Schmidt said he was afraid of the owner, but Rudy told him to come to the warehouse to talk about the theft. Said Rudy, "I'm a cop. Ain't nothing going to happen."58
Schmidt reportedly told internal affairs investigators that once he arrived, the warehouse gates were locked behind him, he was beaten, and the warehouse owner put gun to his head as Rudy watched and poured beer over Schmidt.59 Then Rudy started beating Schmidt in the face. Schmidt was threatened throughout the ordeal; the warehouse owner allegedly said he would cut his hands off with a knife and threatened to have warehouse workers rape him. Schmidt reported the incident to the police, but Rudy was not questioned for seven months, and he denied everything. While at the warehouse with Schmidt, Rudy had ignored police calls, including one "officer needs assistance." Rudy got a twelve-day suspension for failing to take police action, inflicting physical abuse, providing false statements, and conduct unbecoming a police officer, and was returned to active duty.60
Officer Carl Holmes: On January 5, 1992, Holmes saw a man urinating in an alley. He tackled him and, IAD confirmed, stepped on his groin, kicked him,slammed him into a car, and hit the man on the head.61 Commissioner Neal suspended Holmes for twenty days, but Holmes appealed and got the punishment reduced to five days. According to the Philadelphia police department's personnel office, he has since been promoted to lieutenant.62
Holmes had at least one other complaint against him, in 1990.63 When he was a new recruit with nineteen days on the force, he was at a bar at 1:30 a.m. and got into a fight with another bar patron. The complainant alleged that Holmes (6'3" and 290 lbs.), grabbed him by the throat and slammed his head into a car. The complainant was treated at a hospital and had a small abrasion on the back of his head and on his neck. The complaint was not sustained, in part because the complainant had been drinking, but it was reported that investigators apparently asked no questions about Holmes's drinking the same evening.64
42 Interview, August 20, 1996.
43 In the U.S. District Court, for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, re: 39th Police District, Civil Action Nos. 95-1575, etc..
44 Mark Fazlollah, "Flawed reviews give top ratings to rogues," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21, 1996; Joseph A. Slobodzian, "2 ex-officers plead guilty to corruption," Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1995.
45 Michael Kramer, "How cops go bad," Time magazine, December 15, 1997; Stephen Braun, "Scandal rocks Philadelphia cops over corruption, planted evidence," Chicago Sun-Times, October 23, 1995. Several other suspects also alleged that Baird beat them. Ibid.
46 Colbert filed a civil lawsuit against the city and settled for $25,000.
47 Kramer, "How cops go bad," Time magazine, December 15, 1997. It was reported that the officer only cooperated because he had retired and thus did not have access to a union representative. McDougall, "Law and Disorder," Philadelphia Weekly.
49 Jeff Gammage and Mark Fazlollah, "Arbitration offers a route back to work," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1995; U.P.I., "Off-duty officer involved in second fatal shooting," March 25, 1991; and case files of off-duty actions provided to Prof. James Fyfe by IAD, who compiled case studies entitled "Philadelphia police off-duty actions: Complaints and Shootings," May 23, 1994. According to the police counsel with the deputy city solicitor, IAD is responsible for investigating off-duty incidents "in the same manner as any other investigation. A complete investigation is conducted and an analysis and conclusion on the substance of the complaint is made. It is reviewed by supervisors and a final determination is made by the Police Commissioner." Letter to Human Rights Watch from David Domzalski, police counsel, deputy city solicitor, November 6, 1996.
50 According to case files of off-duty actions provided to Prof. James Fyfe by IAD, who compiled case studies entitled "Philadelphia police off-duty actions: Complaints and Shootings," May 23, 1994.
53 Gammage and Fazlollah, "Arbitration offers a route back to work," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1995; U.P.I., "Off-duty officer involved in second fatal shooting," March 25, 1991; and case files of off-duty actions provided to Prof. James Fyfe by IAD, who compiled case studies entitled "Philadelphia police off-duty actions: Complaints and Shootings," May 23, 1994.
54 According to press reports, the City Solicitor's office warned in a memo recommending the settlement, that "facts in this case are potentially horrendous" and that Wilson's wounds would "shock and appall" any jury. Gammage and Fazlollah, "Arbitration offers a route back to work," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1995.
56 Telephone inquiry, August 11, 1997.
57 Mark Bowden, "Major offenses by Philadelphia cops often bring minor punishments," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1995; off-duty case information provided to Professor Fyfe.
58 Bowden, "Major offenses by Philadelphia cops," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1995.
61 Bowden, "Major offenses by..." Philadelphia Inquirer and Fyfe files. The man had just had a kidney transplant and needed to urinate frequently.
62 Human Rights Watch telephone inquiry, August 11, 1997.
63 Fyfe files, "Philadelphia police off-duty actions: Complaints and Shootings," May 23, 1994.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch