When the police are indistinguishable from the bad guys, then society has a serious problem.
– Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham
Philadelphia’s police are grappling with the latest of the corruption and brutality scandals that have earned them one of the worst reputations of big city police departments in the United States. The persistence and regularity of the cycles indicate that between the front-page news stories the city and its police force are failing to act to hold police accountable. The result is an undisturbed culture of impunity that surfaces and is renewed with each successive scandal, as each new generation of police officers is taught through example that their leadership accepts corruption and excessive force. As a result, police officers who should not have remained on the force have unlawfully injured and killed citizens, the city has paid enormous sums in settlements and awards to victims of police misconduct, and many minority communities are distrustful of police officers who too often act like criminals. The shortcomings of the department are reinforced by a police union that tirelessly defends officers accused of human rights violations and fights efforts at independent oversight.
The latest scandal, which emerged fully in 1995, involves officers primarily from the 39th District. As of mid-1997, five had been convicted on charges of making false arrests, filing false reports, and robbing drug suspects.2 Officers raided drug houses, stole money from dealers, beat anyone who got in the way and, as a judge trying one of the ringleaders stated, generally “squashed the Bill of Rights into the mud.”3 Due to exposure of the officers’ actions, thousands of drug convictions were under review as of the end of 1997, with between 160 and 300 cases already overturned because the suspects were arrested by officers known or believed to havebeen involved in misconduct.4 Following the revelations in the courtroom and press, staff in the police department’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD) were transferred, apparently as punishment. No supervisors, and no one from the district attorney’s office (which ignored warnings from the city’s public defender’s office, as early as 1989, that the fabricated justifications given by the officers to enter homes and conduct drug raids were identical in case after case), was held accountable.5 In fact, the district attorney acknowledged in a January 1997 deposition that, “We have changed nothing in the office with respect to trying to guarantee that police officers are all going to be credible.”6
The only positive aspect of this recent round of exposure of abuse is that Philadelphia finally agreed to major reforms. Because the city was faced with paying millions of dollars in civil settlements as a result of the 39th District scandal, it agreed to work with attorneys and local police abuse experts to reform the police department. On September 4, 1996, in a far-reaching court-monitored agreement, Philadelphia agreed to changes that, if implemented, could make the city’s police department a role model for accountability. Although the overdue reforms were only agreed to under the threat of a class-action lawsuit, it is possible that the agreement will prevent serious abuse from recurring. An FBI official warns, however, “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.”7
4 Mark Fazlollah, “Phila. ordered to report on police,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 28, 1997; Christopher McDougall, “Law and Disorder,” Philadelphia Weekly, June 18, 1997. Time magazine reported the figure of one-hundred and sixty. Kramer, “How cops go bad, Time magazine, December 15, 1997.