Commentary

Rogue Cops in Philly?

This article originally appeared in National Review Online on July 14, 2000.

A group of Philadelphia police officers have come under fire for the way in which they took custody of a suspected car thief. A local news helicopter filmed the police as they dragged the suspect out of a vehicle and then kicked him as he lay on the ground. The videotape has already been aired by the national TV networks and an investigation of the incident is underway.

It all began when a police unit spotted a vehicle that had been reported stolen. The cops tried to pull the driver of the car over, but he suddenly sped off. After a brief chase, the suspect crashed the car and then fled on foot. One officer tackled him, but the 6-foot-tall, 240-pound suspect is reported to have grabbed the cop’s gun and to have started firing. Other officers on the scene returned fire. The suspect was somehow able to get into an empty police cruiser and drive away. One officer suffered a gunshot wound to his hand in the firefight.

As the chase resumed on the streets of Philadelphia, police units everywhere were alerted to what had just occurred: A car thief had a gun and had already fired on the police, one officer was wounded, and the shooter was now speeding away in a stolen police car. The local TV news helicopter also heard the dispatch and soon discovered the on-going car chase.

Within a few minutes, the suspect pulled over. The videotape shows at least a dozen officers on foot converging on the stolen police car. Because of the camera angle, the suspect is obscured by numerous cops standing on the driver’s side of the vehicle. What is clear, however, is that he is dragged out of the car to the pavement. The officers then swarm over him — some are throwing punches, many can be seen kicking the man. The blows seem totally unnecessary because the guy is on the ground and hopelessly outnumbered. Also, as it turned out, the suspect had already suffered five gunshot wounds from the earlier firefight (in fairness, however, those wounds may not have been apparent to the officers on the scene).

The Mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, has promised a thorough investigation of the matter. The United States Department of Justice has also announced that it is commencing its own investigation.

Unfortunately, much of the interest in the case seems to be whether the police officers’ actions were “racially motivated.” (The suspect is black, but the group of officers who were beating him was made up of both whites and blacks.) Al Sharpton has been quick to remind everyone that the Republican National Convention is about to get underway in “that city.” He will undoubtedly be sharing more of his insights with us in the next few weeks.

An independent investigation of this incident must be conducted, whether any cop was “racially motivated” or not. If the cops were trying to avenge one of their own by inflicting summary punishment on a hapless criminal, they ought to be thrown off the force. Such conduct blurs the difference between an honorable police professional and a thug who confuses his badge for a license to dispense punishment.

It is in the interest of all concerned to have a special prosecutor appointed to handle this investigation. If the special prosecutor concludes that disciplinary and criminal charges are not warranted, the Police Commissioner can avoid “whitewash” complaints. If charges are found to be warranted, the people of Philadelphia will benefit from the reaffirmation of the rule of law over rogue cops.

Timothy Lynch is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.