HOW COPS GO BAD
It was around 8 o’clock in the evening of Feb. 24, 1991, and Arthur Colbert was lost. Most of the rest of the world was focused on the Persian Gulf, where the ground war had begun only hours earlier, but Colbert had a woman on his mind. His date for the night lived in a Philadelphia neighborhood known for its crime and poverty, and Colbert couldn’t find her house. Then he got lucky—or so he thought. A police wagon was idling down the block, and Colbert got out of his dark blue 1985 Toyota Camry to ask directions. Inside the police van were two uniformed cops, a lean, square-jawed officer with longish yellow hair—known and feared on the streets as Blondie—and a short, dark-haired officer named Tommy Ryan. As Colbert recalls it today, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I probably would have been safer in Kuwait.”
For both Colbert and the Philadelphia police department, a nightmare was about to begin. Before it was over, it would expose a pattern of corruption that would bring down nine Philadelphia cops, implicate scores of others and eventually lead to the freeing of 160 wrongfully convicted prisoners, all victims of a web of misdeeds masquerading as heroic police work.
The Colbert incident was neither as dramatic nor as horrendous as the recent brutalization of Abner Louima at the hands of New York City police. Cases like that grab national headlines, but they are aberrations. More systemic and infinitely harder to root out is a more common form of corruption: too many cops in too many places who routinely flout the laws they are sworn to uphold, cops who come to view the law itself as a maze of misguided rules that hinder their ability to “get the job done.”
Cops like Blondie.
Cops who have created a world governed by an unwritten code of police conduct, a shadow set of rules that guide them as they go about the gritty daily business of tracking and then trapping bad guys. The shadow rules bear little resemblance to official police procedures, but in the real world of urban policing, they prevail.
This is a look into that world, a sort of parallel universe in which protecting “us” from “them” can cost “us” dearly, as Colbert—college student, aspiring FBI agent and a man free of any criminal history—was about to discover on that Friday night. Unwittingly, Colbert walked into a fiefdom commanded by a rogue cop so intimidating that he had cowed an entire neighborhood, and so clever that he had won 14 perfect job ratings in 14 years.
As Colbert, 24, approached the wagon that night, Blondie and Ryan emerged to greet him. “What are you doing here, nigger?” Colbert recalls one of the cops saying. As Colbert explained his predicament, the officers patted him down and searched his car. “What are you doing?” asked Colbert, who knew the law. “What’s your probable cause to search me?” Neither officer responded. “I remember thinking that I was indeed in a bad neighborhood,” Colbert says. “The cops have it rough in the real world. They never know if you’re a bad guy, so I figured I could take a little abuse.”
When the search turned up nothing, Ryan and Blondie directed Colbert to his date’s home on the next block. Within minutes, as Colbert and the woman were driving off, the same cops appeared again. After telling the woman to “get lost,” they handcuffed Colbert and told him he resembled a drug dealer named Hakim. Procedure dictated that Colbert be booked at the 39th-district police headquarters, about a mile away. But Colbert wasn’t in the land of official procedure; he was in the hands of Blondie. So, instead, he was taken to 1518 Ontario Street, a run-down three-story home and sometime crack house that served as a sort of hidden adjunct to precinct headquarters.
Once inside the building, Colbert was put in a chair in the middle of a 9-ft. by 12-ft. back room on the first floor. Still in cuffs, he was beaten with fists, nightsticks and then a long-handled black flashlight. “We were trying to get him to admit he was Hakim,” says Blondie, who agreed to talk to TIME over several days at a federal prison far from Philadelphia, where he is currently serving 13 years for violating the civil rights of Colbert and dozens of others and for stealing money during searches and arrests.
In the 39th district, Blondie was notorious for a version of Russian roulette he used with those he arrested—evidence or no evidence. Colbert fit the bill. Blondie cocked the hammer on what he now says was an empty pistol. “If you don’t tell us what we want to know, I’m going to blow your head off,” he said. Colbert wouldn’t budge. Even today, Blondie—who fears for his life in prison if his real name is disclosed—defends the tactic. “I viewed it as kind of a humane alternative,” he says. “It was less hurtful than beating, and it usually got us the information we wanted.” But not this time.
Still convinced they had Hakim, the officers took Colbert to the station house, where, in a detention room, they roughed him up some more. “We thought the change of venue might work,” says Blondie. It didn’t. Colbert wasn’t Hakim and wouldn’t say he was. So, with Colbert’s house keys in hand, Ryan and Blondie then traveled outside their jurisdiction to search Colbert’s apartment in the close-in suburb of Cheltenham. When nothing incriminating was found, the cops returned to headquarters and released Colbert—after six hours of terror. “Let us catch you around here again,” Colbert recalls Blondie’s saying, “and we’ll kill you.”
The cops made a tiny mistake that evening, a small error of the sort that brings down empires: they failed to return Colbert’s driver’s license. (Ryan had thrown it away.) Colbert was about to move to Detroit, where he is now employed as a social worker, and he needed his Pennsylvania license to apply for one in Michigan. So, frightened and trembling, Colbert returned to the 39th headquarters the next day. “Here was a black guy complaining about two white cops to a white lieutenant,” recalls John Gallagher, the duty supervisor that day. “It took some balls for him to come in.”
This was not untrod territory for Gallagher, who comes as close as anyone to being the hero of the piece. “Over time,” he says, “I’ve heard more than a few civilian complaints against cops. Most are grossly embellished, and some are just outright lies.” But Colbert’s detailed reconstruction impressed Gallagher. “I had watched a psychiatrist say on a TV program that if you put disturbed people in a pink-colored room, it calms them down,” he says, “and I’d just had the detention room painted pink. There was no way Colbert could have known that unless he’d been there.” The tale was “just too awful,” says Gallagher. “Folks get whacked around a lot. You get used to hearing about that. But what happened to Colbert was far over the line.”
Colbert didn’t know the names of his assailants, and there was no record of his arrest or appearance at the station house, but it didn’t take long for Gallagher to figure it out: Ryan and Blondie. Yet even with Colbert’s testimony, it took time—and luck—to bust Blondie and his confederates. There was, after all, no paper trail.
What helped was another police beating, 3,000 miles away. Seven days after Colbert’s encounter, the nation’s attention shifted from Kuwait to Los Angeles, where Rodney King had been beaten senseless by a gang of vengeful cops. As weeks passed and police everywhere pondered the King horror, the Philadelphia department’s internal investigation was leading commanders to a logical conclusion; this was no time for a cover-up. So they released photos of Ryan and Blondie, who had been suspended during the probe, to local newspapers. A flood tide followed. Complaints about the cops’ behavior inundated the department and the press. The pattern of abuse was clear, and the stories from the neighborhood spurred on the investigation that would eventually result in the jailing of Blondie and four associates. The five pleaded guilty without a trial. The government urged leniency—the cops had confessed to more crimes than anyone suspected, and implicated more than 50 fellow officers in the process—but the judge was unsympathetic. “You’ve squashed the Bill of Rights in the mud,” he said before sending the men to stiff prison terms.
As the first to admit wrongdoing, Ryan received only 10 months in jail, and is now free. The others, all of whom were sentenced last year, are currently in federal prisons. Three have spoken freely with TIME but refuse to be identified by name. “We need to keep low profiles,” explains Blondie dryly. “Being known as a former cop to our fellow inmates is not exactly conducive to our life-styles, or to just our continued living.”
In appearance, Blondie, who’s now 42, fits no one’s image of a bad cop; to the contrary, he bears a startling resemblance to a slim, hard-muscled Robert Redford. The son of a Philadelphia bartender and a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service, he coasted through Archbishop Ryan High School but never thought about college. “I didn’t like school,” he explains, “except for the girls and parties.” He tried to become a fireman but failed the test. “The math was too hard,” he says. “The police exam was easier; that’s how I became a cop.”
Blondie took the oath in early 1977. The department he joined had a long history of corruption. A common joke had it that Philadelphia’s kids could play cops and robbers at the same time. This was especially true in the 1970s. The mayor was former police commissioner Frank Rizzo, who had promised to “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot” if he won election. “The way to treat criminals,” Rizzo explained, is “spacco il capa” (bust their heads). Rizzo was as good as his word. A study for the U.S. Justice Department found that while individual Philadelphia police officers made no more arrests than New York City cops, during Rizzo’s eight years as mayor they were 37 times as likely to shoot unarmed citizens fleeing the site of nonviolent crimes.
Blondie spent 14 weeks at the police academy. “It was mostly firearms training, first aid and war stories,” he says. “They taught a bit about things like probable cause—just to say they had taught it—but the message was clear: What you really do as a cop you learn on the street from the veterans, and you could be sure, as they said, that it was nothing like what you learned at the academy.”
It wasn’t. Three weeks into his new career, and teamed with a veteran officer, Blondie made his first arrest; he nabbed a rape suspect. “Nothing fit,” Blondie recalls now. “The clothes description over the radio wasn’t like what our guy had on, and he wasn’t sweating. He said he was just standing outside his own home, which turned out to be true. But the victim ID’d him, so we took him anyway. She was so hysterical; she would have identified anyone.” When Blondie vociferously questioned the arrest, he was told to “shut up, listen and learn.” He then watched as the original description was altered to fit the suspect, who was held for eight months until the victim recanted her identification.
“The pressure is to produce, to show activity, to get the collars,” says Blondie today. “It’s all about numbers, like the body count in Vietnam. The rest of the system determines if you got the right guy or not.”
Blondie learned a lot, very quickly. Beating a suspect into a confession? O.K. Stealing from a bad guy? Fine. But he also learned that even the shadow world had its rules. “The first is, keep it in the ghetto. In the good areas, you don’t go stopping people without cause,” he says. “Second, you don’t take money to let a criminal enterprise continue. And third, you don’t frame an innocent person.” Blondie says he and his crew never “planted stuff” on an innocent person. If he were that kind of cop, he insists, “then we would have put drugs on Colbert, and I wouldn’t be talking to you from behind bars right now. We could have created a his-word-vs.-our-word thing, and we would have got off.” But aside from the lines you don’t cross, says Blondie, “how you get a bad guy, if he really is a bad guy, is pretty much your own business. Your job is to get him. Period.”
How you get him is to disregard the law. “Basically, the first thing you really learn as a cop is how to lie,” says Blondie. For many officers, their first taste of shading the truth involves car stops. “Now, say you see some guy driving who you think is wrong,” says Blondie (“wrong” in his lexicon invariably means a black youth in a late-model car). “You stop him on no basis that could stand up in court. So you lie if you have to. You say he ran a stop sign or didn’t signal or had a broken taillight that you break after you’ve determined he’s bad. That makes the initial stop legal.”
Then, Blondie continues, “you search the car, which you generally have no probable cause to do.” The cop who finds something—guns or drugs—has two alternatives: “Lie, and testify that the guy gave you permission to search.” Or say the contraband wasn’t in the trunk at all, but rather in plain view. “Why sweat it?” asks Blondie. “Sure, you’ve fabricated the probable cause and done an illegal search, but the guy is bad, right? We do what we have to do.”
“There’s far more of this type of thing than anyone could be comfortable with,” says Robert McGuire, who was New York City’s police commissioner for six years. “Do cops perjure themselves routinely on warrants and arrests, where the probable cause is made up after the fact so the arrest stands up in court? Sure they do.”
But it isn’t necessary, says McGuire: “It’s possible to follow the rules and get the job done. In most communities, the bad actors are well known to both residents and the police, which means if you can’t get the bad guys the first time then you can get them the next time, because there’s always a next time.” But most officers don’t make that calculation.
“Prosecutors and judges know a lot of testimony by cops is false,” says Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and criminal defense attorney who has popularized the term testilying. “But they only know it generically, rather than in any particular case. So in a battle of conflicting testimony, cops are given the benefit of the doubt.”
For those who watch cops for a living, the opening scene in the movie L.A. Confidential, with a veteran cop counseling a rookie, is disturbingly on point. “As the film puts it,” says Dershowitz, “if you’re not willing to break the law to do the work you’re charged with doing, then you shouldn’t be a cop—or at least not a detective.”
Blondie was transferred to the 39th District in 1984. at its north end, the 39th is home to Philadelphia’s elite. Large, expensive houses with well-manicured lawns are owned by business tycoons and politicians. But closer to downtown is an area of about 1 sq. mi. that is still home to the predatory crime common in America’s inner cities. “It’s the kind of place where if you saw a big TV satellite dish, you knew something was wrong because just about everyone there was on welfare,” says the sergeant known as Schoolboy, who was Blondie’s nominal boss in “Five Squad,” the detachment of plainclothes officers given the task of ridding the streets of drugs, or at least confining them to Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood.
In most large police forces, a small percentage of aggressive cops do the dirty work. The rest simply punch their time cards, respond only when called and wait for their pensions. “Many cops go their whole careers without making an arrest,” says Joseph McNamara, a former police chief of San Jose, Calif. “The small number of aggressive officers every department has, and needs, are the ones we rely on to clean things up.”
It isn’t hard to spot the ready-to-rumble officers. In Philadelphia’s 39th, it became known quickly that Blondie was such a cop—a man who could do you in even if you had done no wrong. Other officers might cruise through the area and have debris or even rocks thrown at them. When Blondie drove by with his cohort, silence fell on the bleak streets. “Cross those guys, and they’d whack you upside the head,” says Cory Brown, who now lives in the house where Arthur Colbert was beaten in 1991. “We had our times, Blondie and me,” says Brown. “He busted me for having a gun, and I was lucky to get off with probation.” No hard feelings, says Brown. “I didn’t have no permit for the gun.” More important, says Brown, “you got to say that Blondie and them kept a lot of the worst of the stuff around here down, no matter how they went about it.”
Far away in that federal prison, Blondie doesn’t remember Brown, but he takes his point. “You’ve got to show who’s boss on a daily basis,” he says in the deadpan, laconic manner that became legend in the 39th. “That wasn’t and isn’t the kind of area where you walk a beat and make nice with the residents.”
But many of the residents were (and are) “nice,” and they were the ones who screamed loudest for the police to crack down on the crime wave. “The bosses would come back from community meetings with a string of complaints, and we were told to get on it—just get it done,” says Blondie. Police supervisors, he says, had other pressures too: “Above the rank of captain, you get promoted mostly by who you know on the force and in politics. And the politicians scream as loud as the residents. Can you tell me when you ever heard a politician say he’d get tough on the cops for violating the civil rights of drug dealers?”
Five Squad was a coveted assignment. The officers kept their own hours—although there was always a designated eight-hour shift. “That was so we could make arrests at the end of our tour and get overtime doing the paperwork,” says Blondie. In a typical year, he and his fellow Five Squad officers made $60,000 or higher, more than double their salary.
The way “it’s supposed to work is something like this,” says Blondie. “You’re supposed to go to a crack house and make a buy, or have someone make it for you via a ‘controlled buy.’ To do that, you’ve got to strip the guy beforehand to make sure there is no other money on him. Then you give him some money and he makes the buy, and you strip him afterward to make sure he has no more money.” Do it like that, he says, and the buy and subsequent arrest are legal.
“But it’s a pain for several reasons,” he says. “First, you risk having your agent exposed. Second, who’s gonna sell to a white guy standing in line at a crack house? So you get some piper [crack addict] or some whore to make the buy. Or you just pinch someone coming out of the house and find out who’s in the place, whether they’re armed, and where the dope is. Then you go in. It’s illegal that way, but then you go and get a warrant later [and falsify the report], saying you made the buy yourself.” Or, adds Schoolboy, “you drop a dime, which means you call in a ‘shots fired’ alarm to 911. Sometimes you even fire your own gun. Then you wait for the shots-fired call to come over the radio, and you respond to your own call. It’s all made up, but it makes the raid legal.” It’s so routine, says Blondie, “that sometimes we’d laugh and say, ‘Gee, which story should we use today? How about No. 23?’ You get punch drunk in this business.”
Chinaman, a Blondie confederate, even rationalizes theft: “We didn’t use our badges as camouflage just to rob anyone we met who we felt like robbing. We took from drug dealers. The way I look at it, that money wasn’t theirs anyway, and we needed it more than they did, or than the city did, which was who we were supposed to turn it in to.”
Like most addictions, the thievery grew gradually. It began, says Blondie, as “nothing more than reimbursement. Over time, as we got greedy, it became a kind of tax on the bad guys, a spoils-of-war kind of thing. But that’s different than a scum-of-the-earth activity like taking a bribe to let a drug operation continue.”
That may be a distinction without a difference, but not to Blondie. He’s proud that once when he was offered $1,000 a week to let a drug operation flourish, he reported the bribe attempt and the dealer was convicted. Yet over time, according to the charges to which they pleaded guilty, Blondie and his fellow officers stole $100,000.
In Philadelphia, as in most big-city police departments, there is little or no money for informants. Yet cops on the street routinely pay $10 or $20 for information. “It adds up,” says Blondie, who estimates that each of the officers in Five Squad was shelling out as much as $50 a week for tips. “I’d have more chance of being elected Governor than I would trying to get money out of the department for informants,” says Blondie. “The bosses’ view is that we had the best jobs. We wore soft clothes, worked our own hours and made tons of overtime. The brass viewed paying informants out of our own pocket as just a cost of doing business.”
That cost, adds Schoolboy, was often seen as too high. “So when we hit a place, we’d take some money to reimburse our informant payments,” he says. “After a while,” he recalls, “with so much dough sitting around, you just take more, and then you begin to get used to it.” But not too used to it. “Unless you’re completely nuts,” says Chinaman, “you’re careful. If you find 10 grand, say, you take only three or four. You can’t raid a drug house and come back and not turn in some money. That’d be a sure tip-off.”
Most of the time, the squad’s knowledge of crack-house operations was the product of tipster information. “And you have to protect those informants,” says Blondie. “It’s really your No. 1 obligation. You have defense attorneys demanding that you identify them. But if you give up an informant, chances are he’s dead by nightfall.”
At the “end of the day,” says Schoolboy, “given how we lied on the probable cause, I’d say that almost all of our [2,233] arrests were bad. On the other hand, if we did everything by the book, crime would be up. Stealing the money was bad. No excuse for that, and none for the beatings either, especially when you have someone in cuffs. But frankly, I’m proud of the arrests. It may sound crazy, but what we did was kind of noble, I think. I mean, cops everywhere keep being told they’re in a war. You’re told to win it. You’re never told to win it by the book, because those telling you to win it know it can’t be won that way.”
Of the 2,000 or so bad arrests made by Five Squad over the six years between 1984 and 1991, only 160 have been reversed. “And each one has been like pulling teeth,” says Bradley Bridge, the Philadelphia public defender reviewing the files. An assistant district attorney, speaking not for attribution, sounds like Blondie as he defends the foot dragging: “It’s pretty much true that all of those arrested were indeed bad guys, and no one is real eager to let them out on technicalities.” The other reason for going slow is financial. To date, Philadelphia has paid out almost $5 million in wrongful-arrest settlements stemming from Five Squad’s activities (Colbert settled for only $25,000). “There’s simply no real appetite for going full blast on this stuff,” says the district attorney.
From the time Colbert was terrorized in February 1991, it took prosecutors four years just to indict Blondie & Co. for their illegal activities, and it was more than another year before they were sentenced to prison on April 15, 1996. “No matter the substance of complaints against cops,” says McGuire, “if it’s only the victim’s word against the cop’s, it’s a hard road to travel, and it always takes too much time.” For the city and federal prosecutors considering Colbert’s complaint, getting Ryan to “rat out” proved easy. “If Ryan had held fast, they couldn’t have got us,” says Blondie. “He was always a weak sister.” The pressure on Ryan was great. He “faced the prospect of being convicted by the credible testimony of a completely innocent citizen,” as the government said in its sentencing memorandum. Ryan caved, and the FBI fitted him with a wire in October and November 1994. Blondie, no fool, had grown wary of Ryan, and he made no incriminating statements on tape. But he knew the Colbert incident would topple him, and when he was approached by the FBI directly, Blondie caved too. “I miscalculated,” he says ruefully. “The other stuff was just our word against druggies’, but I hoped to win points by cooperating. I thought maybe I could get away with a light term or maybe even probation—13 years never seemed possible.”
To win such points, Blondie had to finger his fellow officers. “A real cop would eat his gun before squealing” on other cops, says Blondie, but he did just that. As the driving force behind the corruption that brought down Five Squad, Blondie freely ratted on Chinaman and two others, and reluctantly on his sergeant, Schoolboy, as well. Impressed with the cooperation of Blondie and his confederates, the government urged leniency. In the future, the prosecutors argued, “other officers…may take their cue from the sentencings of cooperators.” Unswayed, Federal Judge Robert Gawthrop slammed the cops with the maximum mandated by the federal sentencing guidelines—and Blondie with even more. The result has been exactly what the government feared: only four other officers have fallen. “They took the cue all right,” says a senior FBI official. “No one’s talking. And even if they do, the history of these kinds of scandals is that cops go right back to acting as they always have when the dust settles, because the pressure they most feel is the pressure to produce results, the constant demand to get the job done.”
McGuire believes the pressure inevitably forces cops to make up some of their own rules. “Most of the kind of stuff [Blondie and the others] did was in the vast gray area that represents the real nuances of police work,” he says. “We’ve all faced these things; we all have our own personal lines.”
And Blondie, now in the second year of his 13-year sentence? He remains a stranger to remorse: “We didn’t invent the system, or the ways to scam it to do the job. We inherited it. We were its custodians. Now others are.”