Information vs. Injustice--Not in Philadelphia

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In 2010, a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism was given to two women reporters from the Philadelphia Daily News for a series of articles about a group of Philadelphia Police Officers assigned to a team with the Citywide Narcotics Strike Force who robbed local businesses and charging their owners with bogus crimes.  Two of the five were also accused of sexually assaulting 3 different women.  All the officers were removed from the streets pending the outcome of investigations.

It was announced this week that neither the Justice Department, nor the District Attorney will be bringing charges against any of them.  They will be returning to active duty and they might be entitled to lost overtime pay from the time they were on desk duty.

Disgusting.

In order to understand just how bad this is for the Police and the people of this city, one needs merely to review the evidence.

After initially reporting about a questionable relationship and dealings between Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and an informant, the Daily News interviewed a block captain who told them that she had been sexually fondled by another one of the officers, Officer Robert McDonnell.  Later, two more women would accuse another member of the team:  Officer Thomas Tolstoy of similar assaults.

In addition to the sexual assaults, the officers had entered at least 7 corner groceries and perhaps as many as 22 and charged them with possession of drug paraphernalia for packs of small baggies that dealers would use as “dime” and “nickel” bags to deal drugs.  They would then disable the video surveillance equipment and steal money, cigarettes and other merchandise.  They would use the cigarettes to pay off informants.  

In one case, the victim had claimed to have video of the cops robbing them.   They returned to the store, put a gun to the head of the 53-year-old Lebanese victim who operated a smoke shop, demanded the video tape and accused him of selling drugs--a felony.  When the family re-opened the store a few days later, their computer surveillance system had been ripped apart by the officers.  There is a video of the them disabling all the cameras in the store belonging to Jose Duran.  It survived only because there was a hidden back-up of the footage the cops didn’t know about.

An anonymous official with the police force admitted there was no legitimate reason they would do this.

The FBI and the District Attorney’s offices announced they would look into the matter.  That was 5 years ago. In the meantime, the city paid out $1.7 million in settlements to the victims of their thefts.

Then months ago, Police Chief Ramsey was informed that the Feds would not be proceeding with any cases.  The Justice Department refused to comment on why they didn’t see fit to help these victims, none of whom had criminal records.  However, a spokesperson for the DA said that the investigation was “exhaustive”.  This, despite the fact that after initially interviewing the business owners, they never followed up, and none of them were asked to testify in front of a grand jury.

None of the three women who were sexually assaulted were contacted by either the FBI or the DA’s office.

There is SO much evidence here, the fact that they will face no punishment is just a slap in the face to the people of Philadelphia.  Police officers, the vast majority of whom are hard-working, decent people, ought to be furious.  This episode will communicate clearly the message that you cannot trust the police, they will rob you, they will grope you, and they will use the laws against you if you try to defend yourself and they will do so with impunity.

It is also an appalling message to the immigrant community in Philadelphia.  Most of the victims of their crimes ran “bodegas” and corner stores and were from places like Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and the Middle East.  Philadelphia has already long had a mixed track record when it comes to welcoming newcomers.  No clearer signal could be sent to those considering relocating here that your rights will not be respected.  Better pick someplace else.

One can only hope that the DA will reconsider this appalling decision and re-examine the mountain of evidence in this matter.