Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Police Brutality Update: Officers Involved in Sean Bell Murder Face Internal Charges; Cops Videotaped Beating African-Americans in Philadelphia Terminated

May 21, 2008

Officers Face Department Charges in Bell Killing

New York Times

Seven New York City police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell, including three detectives who were acquitted in a criminal trial, were formally accused on Tuesday of breaking Police Department rules in the case.

The department said that the officers violated the internal policy manual in a variety of ways, including improperly firing their guns and failing to process the crime scene after Mr. Bell was killed and his two friends injured in a storm of 50 bullets.

The three detectives who stood trial in the case — Detectives Gescard F. Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper — were charged with “discharging their firearms outside of department guidelines,” said Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman. Detective Isnora was also charged with taking enforcement action while working as an undercover officer instead of letting officers who were present, and not working undercover, take control.

Lt. Gary Napoli, the ranking officer at the scene, faces internal charges of failing to supervise the operation, Mr. Browne said. Sergeant Hugh McNeil and Detective Robert Knapp, of the Crime Scene Unit, were also charged: the detective with failing to thoroughly process the crime scene and the sergeant with failing to ensure a thorough processing was done.

Police Officer Michael Carey, was charged with discharging his firearm outside of department guidelines. Another officer involved in the shooting, Detective Paul Headley, was not charged because a review of the evidence currently available did not support charges, officials said.

If the charges, known as administrative charges, are upheld, the officers could face discipline ranging from loss of pay to retraining to firing. But the internal investigation has been suspended as federal prosecutors weigh civil rights charges in the case.

The department filed the internal charges Tuesday to beat a Sunday deadline. Under personnel rules, it had 18 months from the date of the shooting, Nov. 25, 2006, to charge the officers.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been a spokesman for the Bell family and has protested the acquittals, called the charges “a step in the right direction.” But he drew a parallel between the Bell shooting and the recent beatings of three suspects by the police in Philadelphia, which was caught on videotape.

He urged Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly “to follow the lead of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who fired four police yesterday, demoted one sergeant, and disciplined others, without going through a long internal procedure.”

Michael J. Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, shot back that the “Rev. Al needs to be reminded that all of the detectives were found not guilty in a court of law.” He said the union would “vigorously represent our detectives in the department’s trial room.”

Lawyers for some of the officers also criticized the decision to lodge internal charges against the men.

Though neither Mr. Bell nor his friends had a firearm, defense lawyers argued at trial the three detectives believed someone in Mr. Bell’s car had a gun because of comments they overheard outside the nightclub. Additionally, the evidence suggested the shooting began only after Mr. Bell had twice rammed his car into an unmarked police van.

Detectives Isnora and Oliver were charged with manslaughter and Detective Cooper with reckless endangerment, but Justice Arthur J. Cooperman of State Supreme Court in Queens acquitted them, saying the prosecution had not proved that the shooting was unjustified.

But the judge seemed to criticize the operation when he wrote in his verdict, “Questions of carelessness and incompetence must be left to other forums.”

The chaotic moments surrounding the shooting were examined in depth at trial, with testimony showing that no bubble lights were in place on the roofs of the police vehicles during the attempted arrest of Mr. Bell, and that while officers said they were wearing their shields, some were not wearing police raid jackets. Elements of the crime scene investigation were disorganized, with accusations of contamination of evidence and inaccurate markings of physical evidence, such as shell casings.

Shortly after Detectives Isnora, Oliver and Cooper were indicted, they were served with administrative charges in April 2007 that “basically mirrored the criminal charges they faced,” Mr. Browne said. The new internal charges accuse them specifically of breaking departmental rules — though both could result in their being fired.

The officers can contest the charges before a departmental judge, but it is ultimately up to the commissioner to accept or reject the judge’s recommendation.

The department does not always file internal charges in such cases. In 1999, after four officers in the Bronx fired 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, killing him, the officers were indicted and acquitted, and no departmental charges were filed against them.

The internal charges were determined by what is already in the public record, Mr. Browne said. That includes court testimony in the criminal case and a preliminary departmental report on the shooting. The department did not specify the basis for the charges, that is, why it believed the detectives had violated the rules on shooting, and it did not elaborate on the lapses in handling the crime scene.

Philip E. Karasyk, a lawyer for Detective Isnora, said the department rushed to file charges that he said “are often dismissed or amended.” He added: “The charges that have been served today have been drawn up without the benefit of hearing what the officers have to say.”

Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, defended Officer Carey, saying the department would find that he “acted fully within the scope of his duty and the guidelines of the department.”

Howard Tanner, a lawyer for Lieutenant Napoli, said he “has an excellent prior record.”

Paul P. Martin, the lawyer for Detective Cooper, said he was taking the departmental charges “very seriously,” but was more concerned about the possibility of federal charges.

James J. Culleton, the lawyer for Detective Oliver, did not respond to messages. Sergeant McNeil and Detective Knapp could not be reached for comment, and their lawyers were not known.

Kirk Semple contributed reporting.

May 20, 2008

4 Philadelphia Police Officers in Videotaped Beatings Will Be Fired

New York Times

PHILADELPHIA — Four police officers who were caught on video beating three suspects in a drug-related triple shooting will be fired, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said Monday.

Three other officers have been suspended, Commissioner Ramsey said at a news conference, and one officer has been demoted.

The disciplinary action follows a two-week investigation of the May 5 beating, filmed by a television news helicopter, in which the three men were dragged from their car and then kicked and punched by as many as 15 officers in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia.

The men are in custody on attempted murder, assault and firearms charges.

Commissioner Ramsey said he did not know why the officers acted as they did but he added that emotions were running high because Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski had been killed two days earlier in a robbery in the Port Richmond area of the city.

The 67-second video, which has been broadcast repeatedly on local and national television, is now being examined by District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who will decide whether to file criminal charges against the officers. The F.B.I. is also reviewing the tape, Commissioner Ramsey said.

Some of the officers used “indiscriminate force” that went beyond what is justified to make an arrest, he said. The officers kicked one man in the head and hit another in the head with an object while they lay on the ground.

“There are a group of officers whose actions were outside of department policy,” Commissioner Ramsey said. “We have to be better than some of what we showed on the fifth of May.”

D. Scott Perrine, a lawyer for one of the men, Pete Hopkins, 19, said the disciplinary action “falls far short” of the appropriate response, which he said should be criminal charges of aggravated assault for the officers involved.

“The only reason these people are not in handcuffs is because they are police officers,” Mr. Perrine said. “They behaved like a pack of wild animals.”

Two of the four officers being fired were new recruits on probation; the other two were more experienced officers.

The most senior officer on the scene, Sgt. Joseph Schiavone, was demoted to the rank of police officer and transferred to another district for failing to stop the beating; he had no contact with the suspects. Three other officers were suspended for 15, 10 and 5 days, respectively, and were transferred to other districts.

The four officers being fired are Patrick Gallagher, Patrick Whalen, Robert Donnelly and Vincent Strain. The three who were suspended are Sean Bascom, Demetrios Pittaoulis and Jonathon Czapor.

Eight other officers were found to have had “physical contact” with the men, within the limits allowed by police procedure. They were not disciplined but will undergo additional training in arrest procedures. Two more officers among the 18 on the scene had no contact with the men, Commissioner Ramsey said.

The Philadelphia Police Department has hired the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent group, to determine whether it is following best practices.

Mayor Michael Nutter said at the news conference that he was satisfied by the department’s response to the beating, pointing out that 16 of the 18 officers at the scene had been fired, disciplined or subject to retraining.

“Today’s announcement represents, I believe, what is required in this matter: swift, direct action,” Mr. Nutter said.

Paula Peebles, the Philadelphia chairwoman of the National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, said the disciplinary action was an insufficient reaction to the beating.

“The position of the citizens of Philadelphia is that the response by Ramsey and Nutter was not enough,” Ms. Peebles said. “We want all the officers prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

She said supporters would demonstrate outside the district attorney’s offices on Wednesday and were planning to file a complaint with the United States Department of Justice.

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