Philadelphia–Fatal shootings and severe beatings by police are grabbing headlines nationwide, but the far more frequent forms of police abuse are – the use of foul language, conducting improper stops and frisks and the making of false arrests — abuses that remain below the public’s and the media’s proverbial ‘radar.’
Those forms of abuse comprise the daily indignities endured by thousands of mostly minority people across America.
And, it is those forms of abuse that ignite intense ire against police, particularly in poor and/or non-white communities. Citizens in minority communities feel besieged by the police who are supposed to be serving and protecting them. Too many feel that too many cops do not treat them with either the dignity or respect that is essential for effective policing, according to the report from President Obama’s task force on policing released months ago.
Abuses by police often arise from deliberate police practices, especially overly aggressive law enforcement strategies that the Obama task force noted can “do lasting damage” to public trust. That presidential task force is co-chaired by Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey of Philadelphia who ironically leads a department long assailed for its persistent brutality and corruption.
An example of that aggressive behavior is about to play out in a Philadelphia courtroom as the Philadelphia Police Department was recently hit with yet another lawsuit – this one arising from yet another incident of alleged police abuse. The victim in this case claims Philadelphia police beat, kicked and shot him twice with a Taser in May 2013 simply because he was videotaping them engaging in abusive behavior.
That police assault on Sharif Anderson provides a chilling case study of so much that is wrong with the criminal justice system in Philadelphia and too many places across America.
“I was in disbelief,” Sharif Anderson said about the police attack that occurred when officers rushed him while he was on his own front porch using his smart phone to video other police roughing-up some of his colleagues out on the sidewalk.
Incredibly, the ‘crime’ of videoing police that triggered the attack on and arrest of Anderson is not really a crime in Philadelphia. Police Commissioner Ramsey had issued two directives, in 2011 and in 2012, telling his officers that citizens had a right to videotape them– directives apparently disregarded by the officers involved in Anderson’s arrest.
Given the fact that Commissioner Ramsey had barred arrests for simply photographing and/or videoing police, some observers contend Philadelphia prosecutors should have rejected the arrests of Anderson and four others in that 2013 incident because those arrests arose from violations of Ramsey’s directives. But prosecutors reflexively accepted police claims that disorderly conduct – not videoing – precipitated the arrest of Anderson and the four others.
“I was assaulted and they charge me with assault,” Anderson recounted. “A cop claimed I bruised his hand in the midst of him pummeling me.”
That police assault on Anderson left him with “permanent injuries” stated the lawsuit Anderson filed recently against the Philadelphia Police Department, That assault, the lawsuit stated, has caused Anderson to incur “substantial legal fees” to retain a lawyer to fight the criminal charges filed in the arrest.
Anderson said that 2013 arrest has impacted his life in other ways. “I tried to get another job but was denied due to this arrest.”
Anderson currently awaits trial on charges of assaulting police, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Charges police lodged against three of those four men arrested along with Anderson were dismissed. The fourth man police arrested during that early evening incident on May 27, 2013 won an acquittal.
That police encounter with Anderson embodied practices criticized by judges, rights monitors and activists dating back decades.
In 1973, for example, a federal judge in Philadelphia faulted Philadelphia police for filing “charges of resisting arrest when the arrest was unlawful in the first place.”
That judge, ruling in a case involving abuse complaints against the Philadelphia Police Department dating from the late 1960s, stated too many police in Philadelphia “habitually violate legal and constitutional rights” of blacks.
In 1998, a report on Philadelphia police abuses by Human Rights Watch stated investigations by the PPD Internal Affairs Division have “often protected officers who committed human rights violations by failing to properly handle abuse complaints.”
An IAD report stated Anderson was not “physically abused” by any of the four officers that arrested him. That IAD conclusion contradicted accounts of eyewitnesses who said police beat Anderson when he was videoing police. Those eyewitnesses included the four colleagues arrested with Anderson.
Police told IAD investigators that Anderson had to be subdued with “justified” strikes because he struggled and resisted arrest. Police acknowledged using batons and a Taser in Anderson’s arrest.
The IAD report did sustain Anderson’s charge that one officer smashed his smart phone after his arrest.
Arresting officers denied seeing a policeman deliberately smash Anderson’s cell phone. But one policeman did tell IAD that a fellow officer “intentionally damaged” Anderson’s smart phone.
That IAD report rejected Anderson’s claim that his arrest resulted from his videoing police. IAD investigators credited the claims of arresting officers that they arrested Anderson only because of his disorderly conduct. The police destruction of Anderson’s cell phone, his lawsuit charged, deprived him of evidence he could use “in his defense.”
While police and eyewitnesses presented different accounts, there is agreement that the incident started when two officers told a group of young men to move a bicycle from a sidewalk.
Eyewitnesses said one of those two officers ordered the men to move the “fu*king bike” – which eyewitnesses said was not blocking the sidewalk. Police, however, claimed that when they politely asked for the removal of that bike, members of that group started yelling obscenities at those two officers and taunted them. The two officers left the scene, but returned with other officers to make arrests. The owner of the bike had moved it before the police returned.
Verbal abuse – where police use foul language without provocation – is one of the highest categories of complaints filed with Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, the citizen review entity. A PAC released earlier this year listed the police district where the assault on Anderson occurred as registering the highest number of citizen complaints for verbal abuse and physical abuse from 2008-2013.
During an arrest frenzy when police returned, officers’ claimed Sharif Anderson continued, “acting disorderly” although he was standing on the porch of a house away from the sidewalk where police were. Officers, according to the IAD report, told Anderson “to stop recording, but he did not stop.”
Lawyers for Anderson have a video showing him videoing police and not interfering with the police arrest operation at a time when police claimed Anderson was arousing a crowd against the police.
The City of Philadelphia is now battling a number of civil lawsuits filed by persons charging wrongful arrest for photographing or videoing police.
Every year that financially strapped city expends resources fighting lawsuits filed against police misconduct. Those lawsuits usually end in payments to victims.
Perversely, citizens subjected to misconduct by police end up paying for that abuse twice: paying to settle misconduct lawsuits and paying the salaries of errant officers.
That 1998 Human Rights Watch report noted that the City of Philadelphia had paid enormous sums in settlements and awards to victims of police misconduct noting that many in minority communities are “distrustful of police officers who too often act like criminals.”