Daniel Denvir is a Rhode Island-based contributing writer to CityLab and a former staff reporter at Philadelphia City Paper.
The latest outrageous acquittal, this time in Philadelphia.
This morning, a federal jury stunned Philadelphia and acquitted six city narcotics officers accused of violently robbing suspected drug dealers of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Victims were allegedly brutally assaulted and even hung over balconies, according to the indictment.
Throughout the trial, lead defense lawyer Jack McMahon attacked the alleged victims' credibility (calling them "bags of trash" and "despicable liars") and that of former officer Jeffrey Walker, a narcotics cop arrested separately who pleaded guilty and testified against his former colleagues.
McMahon apparently did a good job convincing the jury that these alleged drug dealers were all liars despite the fact that they and Walker independently told the same chilling stories. What's so sad and ironic about this is that this is exactly why corrupt police target criminals: who’s going to believe them?
Apparently not this federal jury which, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, was made up "largely of white suburban residents." McMahon played to what was no doubt a sympathetic audience.
"There is no question that the federal jury pool in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is overwhelmingly white, suburban and rural, conservative and pro-law enforcement," says Larry Krasner, a prominent civil rights lawyer and longtime critic of narcotics officer corruption.
The same was true in 1992 when the trial of the officers videotaped beating Rodney King was moved from Los Angeles to suburban Simi Valley*, "a police officers' bedroom community with a predominantly white population," as reporter Linda Deutsch put it. "There were no blacks on the jury."
Soon thereafter, Los Angeles was in flames.
Today's verdict sends a message to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams: the question of whether rogue police are held accountable lies in his office's hands. Williams has shown a new interest in prosecuting police and correctional officer misconduct in recent months, after years of criticism for ignoring it.
City juries are by no means automatically anti-cop, but seem likelier to be more skeptical of police. A 2013 Pew Research Center poll found that compared with suburbanites and rural residents, urban residents as a whole were more likely to agree that black people are treated less fairly than whites by police. Much of this, however, may be more related to race than geography. A December 2014 Gallup analysis of poll data found that a similar percentage of urban and non-urban whites had a great deal or a lot of confidence in police (62 to 60-percent), but that black people living in urban areas were less likely to have such confidence (26-percent) than those who live in non-urban areas (38-percent). City juries then would likely be more skeptical of cops than federal juries drawing from the broader metropolitan area not because they are urban per se, but because they are more likely to include black people.
But it can also be hard to get local prosecutors to take on police misconduct: Krasner says that federal prosecutors ceased calling some of the narcotics officers to testify years before Williams' office took action, and that he only did so only after Krasner's accusations of misconduct prompted a local judge to order the DA to release records on a number of officers.
Another blockbuster case was exposed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Philadelphia Daily News series, detailing allegations against another group of city narcotics cops of fraudulent search warrant applications, looting immigrant-owned convenience stores, and in one officer's case, committing serial sexual assault. Yet neither federal nor local prosecutors brought charges. Last month, the DA charged another narcotics cop, Christopher Hulmes, with perjury after I exposed his lies in the Philadelphia City Paper—more than three years after he had admitted to lying in open court.
The case should also should remind Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey that the city's drug war is out of control. Federal prosecutors alleged that "Police Department top brass never asked too many questions because the squad was one of the most productive on the force, often raking in large hauls of seized money and drugs," according to the Inquirer. Indeed, the officers' immediate supervisors testified on their behalf.
The next step for the six acquitted officers from this morning’s verdict will no doubt be to use the city's broken arbitration system to overturn their dismissals (though the police department says that one of the officers has resigned). And then they could very well end up back on the street once again holding a gun, a badge, and the power of arrest over the citizens of Philadelphia. But civil rights cases filed by the alleged victims will move forward. A lot of money, and some measure of unfulfilled justice, is at stake.
"Justice comes in many forms," says Krasner, whose office is coordinating the various lawyers bringing what he says is more than 100 civil rights lawsuits against the officers and the city. "Sometimes it is criminal court. Sometimes it is in civil court. And we are looking forward to pursuing these civil claims."
*CORRECTION: This story originally referred to Simi Valley as Simi County. Simi Valley is located in Ventura County.