Cops Walk In Philly Bodega-Robbery Scandal

It was hardly the first police-misconduct story I’d written about, but the 2009 disclosures of what Philadelphia cops had been doing to bodega owners still were enough to shock me

The Philadelphia officers’ excuse for their raid on Jose Duran’s bodega was the same as their excuse for other bodega raids: he was selling grocery zip-lock bags, and Pennsylvania law makes it unlawful to sell containers that a seller reasonably knew or should have known will be used to store drugs. The cops methodically snipped the wires to seven or eight security cameras around the store, and Duran said nearly $10,000 in cash, cigarettes, batteries and other goods then mysteriously vanished from the store.

The story shocked others, too, especially given corroborative accounts from other bodega owners who reported that police had begun the raids by taking care to disable cameras, in one case allegedly by smashing them with metal rods or hammers, in another case destroying a computer that had retained images of the raid. Money, cigarettes, and other property typically vanished during the raid without account, and some owners were brutalized as well. The Philadelphia Daily News investigated extensively and found that because one surveillance camera had a concealed backup hard drive, it retained video of an invading officer actually reaching up to cut its wires.

Like others, I suspect, I assumed that with evidence like this on hand and numerous bodega owners willing to talk with the press, it was safe to stop following the story, since the justice system surely could be trusted to run its course. The last thing I imagined was that every single officer would walk. How wrong I was

Last week, news broke that federal prosecutors had decided not to file criminal charges against the officers. And the five-year statute of limitations has run out, not just in Collado’s case but for nearly two dozen other merchants with similar allegations.

“They played the clock game. They let time run out,” said Danilo Burgos, the former head of the 300-member Dominican Grocers Association who is running for a state House seat in North Philadelphia. “Now no charges will be filed and people have no confidence whatsoever in the process.” …

Several merchants told reporters this week that they were angry - and puzzled: How could U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger close the case without conducting, in their minds, a thorough investigation? …

The Daily News could not find a single merchant who said they had been called to testify before a grand jury, which mystified several former federal prosecutors.

One Jordanian-American family that owns a tobacco shop said FBI investigators did come to interview them, but they never heard a followup. 

A few questions: 

* If you were an immigrant shopkeeper, what lessons would you draw from this about America’s promise of equality under the law?

* Does it still seem like minor harmless nannyism to pass laws banning things like mini-zip-lock bags as potential drug paraphernalia, laws that are widely ignored and may even be unknown to the regulated parties, given that it allows police like this a perfect basis to go to a judge and obtain formally valid search warrants?

* Note that the former head of the Dominican grocers association is running for the Pennsylvania legislature, perhaps an indication that with the law having failed to protect them from oppression, some groups feel they have little choice but to turn to politics. What do we tell groups that lack the collective means or will to assert themselves in politics? That we will offer them no way to protect themselves from predation?