When Narcotics Cops Go Rogue: How Some Police Squads in Philidelphia Operate like Criminal Gangs


The following article first appeared on Substance.com:

For years in North Philly, the heart of Philadelphia’s heroin and crack trade, narcotics squads have exercised incredible powers among the poor blacks and Latinos they patrol. They have kicked in doors and manhandled people. They have put their hands on anyone they suspected of trafficking drugs. They have stepped on necks, literally. The fact that citizen complaints generally go nowhere has sent a clear message to the officers tasked with controlling the city’s drug trade: You can do whatever you want to whoever you want as long as they’re poor.

In 2008, when the war on drugs in the city was arguably at its most out of control, one narcotics squad did just that. They moved into new territory that not even other dirty cops considered fair game. They didn’t just push the limits of civil rights. They went totally rogue. When the local press broke the scandal, outrage was voiced, and cries for reform. Last month, after plodding forward for five years, a high-profile federal investigation into police corruption by a Philadelphia narcotics squad was dropped.

How did we get to a place where a narc squad becomes a roving pack of violent criminals and gets away with it? How can we get out of that place?

Put yourself in the mind of a dirty cop. You’ve been getting away with everything short of murder for years in your dealings with the dudes who run the drug houses you raid. It starts with pocketing some money you take off dealers—for example, subtracting from the slip you write up and submit as evidence the amount you want to spend on a weekend at the beach with your squad boys. You take property you find on dealers you frisk, and their complaints that you ripped them off are ignored because it’s their word against a cop’s. If you’re the lecherous type, you cop a feel when arresting a hustler’s girlfriend. Again, if she complains, you get away with it because, you tell Internal Affairs, she’ll say anything to stay out of jail. Your abuses increase incrementally, and it keeps going your way. It seems like everyone else does it; you’d almost be a fool not to.

“This one cop in the 12th District [of Southwest Philly] acts like he’s Santa Claus,” a young hustler who used to sell crack near Elmwood Avenue told me, “except in reverse. He takes our shit and gives it to his kids.” The officer routinely shook down the hustler’s crew and once stole his handheld PlayStation during a stop-and-frisk. I once ask one of my clients, a young former heroin seller from the Badlands, if the rumors that cops run their own dope corners are true. “Yeah, that’s the best crew to be on,” he said. “Everybody wants to be on the cop’s crew. They always know when the narcs are coming around. They never get booked.” At the time it sounded too conspiratorial not to be apocryphal, like so much other street-corner talk I’m privy to. But I now know that it wasn’t.

The more rational of the dirty cops, realizing that cops hold all the cards, decide to play it low and slow, not attracting too much attention. Turning up in the papers could get them pulled off the street, and they don’t want to abuse the privilege or wreck a good thing for everybody else. But imagine that you’re a little reckless, a little power mad. Maybe you’re a straight sociopath and you intend to strangle every bit of money you can out of what you consider a shit-hole neighborhood full of cockroaches that need to get squashed. Put all this together, and you get the rogue Philly narc squad of 2008.

The scandal came to light in 2009 in a series of stories in the Philadelphia Daily News called “Tainted Justice.” There were camera stills of narc cops cutting cords to surveillance systems in bodegas right before they trashed the stores, stuffing their pockets with money from the register, off-loading cigarette cartons and even making themselves hoagies from the deli counter. The supposed reason for the raids was sale of drug paraphernalia: 12/12s, the mini Ziploc-type plastic baggies that dealers stuff with dime rocks of crack and nickels of weed.

The bodegas were never suspected of trafficking drugs. Even without the evidence that the raids constituted nothing more than street-level shakedowns, this was the drug war at its most illogical and self-defeating: committing major amounts of law enforcement resources to target otherwise legitimate business committing minor misdemeanors. The newspaper series, which won a Pulitzer Prize, was a triumph of old-school investigative journalism. The reporters, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, went onto the hardest blocks in Philly’s dope zone and relentlessly knocked on doors to trace fraudulent drug warrants. They sifted through mountains of court documents. They weathered withering pressure to pull the story from pugilistic lawyers representing accused cops. They endured being accused of being cop haters and spent months looking over their shoulders, fearing retribution from men in blue. (Ruderman and Laker flesh out the story in Busted, a book that details evidence of these and other police abuses, including sexual assaults.)

When the story broke, the cops on the rogue squad were taken off the street. After an internal review, the police commissioner recommended that federal authorities investigate the allegations for possible criminal charges. Time passed. Last month, as the statute of limitations loomed, the case was dropped—reportedly due to weak witnesses and a lack of evidence.

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) celebrated its victory, saying that none of the accusations leveled at the officers were “that drastic.” The neighborhoods where cops terrorized law-abiding bodega owners sent up an outcry as the outcome confirmed their claims that the justice system is separate and unequal in dealing with citizens in poor communities of color. Dagma Rodriguez, one of the three women to accuse officer Thomas Tolstoy of sexual assault, made a video statement sharing the pain that this outcome caused her.

In Busted, Ruderman and Laker make the case that the “recurrent cancer” of police corruption is why a watchdog press is vital to the healthy function of cities. But there is scarce evidence that investigative journalism has curbed police corruption in Philadelphia. Corruption has persisted in clockwork fashion from the height of print journalism’s powers in the Watergate 1970s to its current Internet-era collapse.

In 2012, an officer was arrested for selling heroin; he was one of 40-some officers charged with corruption after the “Tainted Justice” investigation. That may be evidence that “Tainted Justice” sparked more oversight, but more likely it’s an indication that police corruption has continued with abandon despite it. Last year, Jeffrey Walker, another rogue narc-squad officer in West Philly, was charged with robbing drug dealers. He pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Courthouse insiders say that Walker will finger as many as 15 dirty cops who are still on the streets. The city’s capacity for police corruption seems to be bottomless.

The root of police corruption, not just in Philadelphia but nationwide, is partly the war on drugs—a fact that the press, watchdog or not, often overlooks. The drug war has given the police carte blanche to operate lawlessly in poor neighborhoods, where anyone who complains of ill treatment can be labeled a drug user or dealer whose word can’t be trusted. The cash-based black market for drugs makes it a ripe target for greedy cops who feel that their official compensation isn’t adequate for the risks they take. The morally questionable methods that cops adopt to make arrests, like recruiting drug addicts as paid confidential informants, create a situation where falling on the wrong side of the law can become commonplace for making big busts. When cops come to court with a weak case, they can commit perjury and the system will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The problem can’t be solved internally. The local FOP resembles a mafia clan, complete with an omerta code and enormous influence over its particular sphere of local politics. Every officer knows that a rogue cop may get pulled off the street and stuck on desk work for a while—maybe he even loses his job—but the FOP wins nine out of 10 cases in arbitration.

The drug war has created in police departments the same kind of monsters that the Catholic Church did during decades of covering up sexual abuse and reassigning accused priests to different parishes. Eventually the priesthood became a magnet for potential predators once it was abundantly clear that abusing children held no consequences. Likewise, Philadelphia’s police department attracts power-abusing would-be criminals seeking the cover of a badge. Good officers who honestly serve the public rarely come forward to denounce those in their ranks who are ruining the reputation of their profession.

The only solution is to pull the plug on the drug war that propels this corruption. If the tons of cash fueling the black market were drained into controlled and regulated forms of dispensing legal drugs to registered users, police would lose interest in policing what little remained of the drug underworld. Law enforcement resources could be redirected into more intensive efforts against violent crime rather than squandered on operations targeted at bodega owners selling plastic baggies. A Marshall Plan for moving those who lose their gigs in the drug black market—the only reliable employer in the poorest Philadelphia neighborhoods—into a legitimate labor market offering a livable wage would reduce the possibility of drug sellers diversifying into robbery and other criminal work.

The legalization and regulation of drugs, however, is a long-term strategy. There are much more modest ways to begin stripping away the perverse incentives that create corruption in law enforcement. Decriminalizing petty selling of all drugs would remove from the criminal justice system the so-called microtraffickers who clog my caseload—the kids who generally aren’t packing guns and are just trying to earn to eat but who nonetheless are chased down by narc squads for easy collars. We can outlaw the use of paid confidential informants, abolish civil asset forfeiture and reform sentencing.

The drive for change must also come from within poor communities. Political disorganization has been the norm for too long, fueled by contempt for a system known to be rigged, where justice cannot be found. Embittered disengagement cannot create change. But there is a growing sense that the dynamic may be shifting—in Colorado and Washington’s marijuana legalization, say, and the recent election of progressive mayors in New York City and Newark. People want police to stop occupying and bullying their communities under the name of public service. If they come together to work toward that end, it will happen. But until major changes in our drug policies are made, expect the cancer of police corruption, and its many human costs, to persist.

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