Police Corruption Blues: Red Flags & Black Marks

A Philadelphia police officer stood outside the front door of the department’s headquarters building next to a “No Smoking” sign, cavalierly smoking a cigarette and ignoring the smoking ban imposed by the police commissioner.

While the officer flaunted the department’s smoking ban, inside Philadelphia’s Police Administration Building (PAB) department officials were holding a disciplinary hearing for a policewoman charged with an alleged tax scam detailed in headline-making news coverage.

The actions of that smoking-ban ignoring police officer and the tax-scamming police officer each make a mockery of the Philadelphia Police Department’s professed motto of “Honor-Integrity-Service” –- a motto emblazoned in large letters on a wall outside the PAB’s main entrance.

Further, those actions, albeit not comparale in their severity, both symbolize a disturbing reality operative in law enforcement across America: violations by police receive different treatment from the authorities than violations by ordinary citizens.

The tax scam, detailed in reports by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, involved 15-year veteran Officer Elaine Thomas, who fraudulently signed court documents claiming she was related to six persons she obtained houses from. By claiming the sellers were relatives, she was able to avoid paying city and state real estate transfer taxes, since transfers between relatives are exempt from taxation.

Corrupt cops have long been a staple of Hollywood films, but the problem is real and wide-spread in today's AmericaCorrupt cops have long been a staple of Hollywood films, but the problem is real and wide-spread in today's America

Those house ownership transfers included forged signatures from dead persons that Thomas variously contended were her living father, mother and sister, according to real estate documents.

In one transaction, Thomas allegedly claimed to be the sister of a dead woman who was over sixty years older than her. Thomas, who has rejected media requests for comments, reportedly has denied any improprieties.

Philadelphia police officials began an internal investigation of Thomas in June 2012 after the city’s District Attorney, incredibly, declined to file charges against Thomas.

The DA had reviewed allegations against Thomas for five years, a review that pushed off any investigation by the Police Department until completion of the DA’s investigation.

The DA did charge two people with connections to those suspect home sales involving Thomas, including a woman who pleaded guilty to conspiracy involving the notarizing of phony property sales.

If the DA’s decision to not charge Thomas triggered suspicions about police receiving different treatment, the results of the police disciplinary hearing for Thomas underlined such suspicions.

Philadelphia’s Police Board of Inquiry only recommended a thirty-day suspension for Thomas after finding her guilty, reportedly for misconduct related to her fraudulently gaining possession of those six properties.

The wrist-slap of Thomas and other similarly mild disciplinary actions handed down to other officers during the past few months for arguably egregious offenses gives additional weight to long-standing claims that crime pays if the criminal is on the right side of the law.

Early this fall, Philadelphia police officials refused to discharge seven Police Department employees, including a staff member of a Deputy Police Commissioner, who admitted to fraudulently obtaining cash grants established to assist low-income residents in paying their utility bills.

The DA’s Office did not charge those PPD employees involved in fleecing the government-funded energy assistance program.

Philadelphia Police Department officials extended the mild punishment of suspensions ranging from three to fifteen days to those employees admitting to utility theft and fraud, including a police detective lieutenant who earned $94,000 last year, according to city records.

The day after the wrist-slap discipline for Officer Thomas, Philadelphia prosecutors dropped charges in over forty drug cases and signaled their intent to drop over sixty additional cases due to the DA’s unwillingness to utilize the testimony of six narcotics squad officers responsible for those drug cases.

The week before the Thomas wrist-slap, local news broke about the refusal of Philadelphia prosecutors to pursue criminal cases that require testimony from those six officers assigned, including a police lieutenant.

Such rare action by prosecutors in refusing to employ the testimony of sworn police officers in prosecutions usually means the prosecutors have evidence that the officers in question are either tainted by or engaged in corrupted activities.

Philadelphia Police Department officials subsequently removed those six officers from narcotics work, but as yet the department hasn’t disciplined, discharged or arrested any of them.

The officers, reassigned to street patrol, recently posed for a photograph in their patrol uniforms, in which they can be seen smiling at a popular downtown Philadelphia tourist destination.

The police corruption-related news reports of last week mirror news in April 2009 about two Philadelphia narcotics field unit squads that were reassigned in the wake of local and federal probes into corrupt practices.

In September 2000, news broke about a FBI memo detailing patterns of corruption among a group of Philadelphia narcotics officers. including perjured testimony and stealing of money and drugs from suspected criminals.

The mid-1990s, a scandal in the 39th District also involved narcotics officers who were found to be preying on people. It led to the dismissal of more than 500 criminal charges, and to City Hall having to pay over $4 million to settle wrongful arrest lawsuits filed by the victims of that police abuse.

Andback in the 1980s there was the massive “One Squad Scandal” –- yet another incident of police corruption.

Police corruption, according to a widely utilized definition, is the misuse of police authority for personal gain.

This year, news reports detailed various corruption scandals in cities including Baltimore, New York City and Tulsa. In mid-October, four officers in a town in Oregon sent a letter to town officials charging the Police Chief there with engaging in corrupt activities including gambling on duty and covering up serious misconduct by officers under his command.

Elaine Thomas, the Philadelphia officer who received the wrist-slap discipline, received full support from Philadelphia’s police union –- the Fraternal Order of Police. Thomas is a minor official in the FOP.

The FOP had threatened to protest outside of the PAB in support of Thomas and in opposion to a plan by Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner to allow the news media to attend the normally private Board of Inquiry hearing.

Commissioner Charles Ramsey revoked his invitation for the media to attend the Thomas hearing, contending the hearing room was too small to accommodate reporters. He rejected claims that FOP pressure had prompted his reversal.

Earlier this year the FOP bragged about its clout when an arbitrator’s ruling forced the PPD to rehire an officer fired in 2011 after police investigators had videotaped that officer stealing money and drugs from suspected criminals.

That videotape, and other evidence developed by police Internal Affairs, followed reports from victims, confirmed by other police who had observed the misconduct, which was later reported in news media accounts.

During that officer’s termination from the PPD, the FOP paid him to perform odd jobs at the union’s headquarters.

Corrupt and brutal officers in Philadelphia, if they are discharged, often manage to regain their police positions through an arbitration process that is weighted in favor of the FOP thanks to the FOP’s ability to select sympathetic arbitrators and otherwise manipulate the process.