Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly police actions on 52nd Street under investigation, but distrust of cops keeps some witnesses silent

Confidence is low among people in West Philadelphia that the Philadelphia Police Department will conduct a comprehensive investigation of officers' conduct on 52nd Street.

Police talk with people at 52nd and Chestnut Streets, in West Philadelphia, May 31, 2020.
Police talk with people at 52nd and Chestnut Streets, in West Philadelphia, May 31, 2020.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The letter that Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi received in the mail late last month presented a dilemma.

For weeks, she had been furious about the harm police caused West Philadelphia residents — many of whom had nothing to do with the protests, looting, and violence — during their response to unrest that erupted there May 31 after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Now, the letter said, the department’s Internal Affairs division wanted to interview her about her experiences that day, when tear gas wafted into her home on Chancellor Street and forced her and her two children to seek shelter in their bathtub.

Could she trust a department that had indiscriminately fired rubber bullets and tear gas into her neighborhood to now adequately police itself? Would refusing to cooperate hinder the chances that the officers responsible would ever be held accountable?

“I just don’t trust them,” Mubarak-Hadi said. And she’s not the only one.

More than two weeks after The Inquirer published a story spotlighting the bystanders and peaceful protesters caught up in the police response to a situation that began with outbursts of violence, and ended with officers firing rubber bullets and shooting tear gas down residential streets, a number of those interviewed by the newspaper have been contacted by Internal Affairs.

» READ MORE: Besieged, then betrayed

Nearly all of those who spoke to The Inquirer said they were not likely to cooperate, saying they are deeply skeptical that a police-led probe will lead to a meaningful response. And lawyers representing 20 of the West Philadelphia residents now suing the city in federal court have broadly advised their clients not to talk to police and to pursue justice through other avenues, including the courts and the office of District Attorney Larry Krasner, who has filed criminal charges against two officers for alleged misconduct while responding to protests in other parts of the city.

But refusing to participate in the internal investigation, said Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a department spokesperson, will limit the ability of the department to hold officers accountable.

“Participation by community members who experienced or witnessed these events is essential in ensuring that the investigation is as comprehensive and exhaustive as possible,” he said in a statement.

It’s a struggle for protesters nationwide as authorities have vowed to seriously investigate allegations of heavy-handed police response. Victims of police overreach are being asked to accept that the department that harmed them can investigate itself.

“I don’t trust that the Police Department is investigating their own people thoroughly and correctly,” said Onika Carrine, who shared with The Inquirer video of a police officer pointing a teargas gun at her, despite her having no involvement in violence, vandalism, or looting. “Maybe that’s not a good bias to have.”

Despite reservations, Carrine called the investigating officer who reached out to her and told him he could find the video she took on her social media accounts. She is still unsure whether she will provide a statement, though, and as of Monday she had not.

Paul Hetznecker, one of the lawyers participating in the federal suit, said his clients have historic reasons to doubt the department is capable of policing itself.

“Historically, Internal Affairs investigations have not provided protection to the community when it comes to transparency and accountability,” he said. “What they have done is protect police narratives.”

» READ MORE: Black and Blue: 190 years of police brutality against Black people in Philadelphia

Department officials have acknowledged that a lack of planning resulted in too few officers responding to West Philadelphia on May 31, the day after peaceful protests in Center City devolved into violence. Officers stationed on 52nd were quickly overwhelmed by people burning cars and pelting cops with rocks and debris that left 15 officers hurt, two of them seriously.

When reinforcements arrived, the response was swift and harsh. Officers deployed tear gas on agitators, peaceful protesters, and bystanders alike.

The response left residents traumatized and shook their already rocky faith in the city’s law enforcement. And despite their calls for an apology from police, the department largely responded with silence, even holding up their response in West Philadelphia as a justified use of the force they deployed. Mayor Jim Kenney has since apologized for the police response.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has said the department has identified several officers alleged to have engaged in misconduct. Still, no officers have been disciplined. Kinebrew said disciplinary action could result from the Internal Affairs investigation.

Despite claims from Outlaw and other city officials that internal reviews of police action that day have been underway for two months, none of the residents who have been most public with their complaints about their neighborhood’s treatment that day said they had been contacted by anyone in the department until after The Inquirer’s July 17 story.

The correspondence Mubarak-Hadi received, postmarked July 22, was nearly identical to two others shared with The Inquirer. They state the department has received a complaint, give a case number, and ask the recipients to call an investigator at a phone number included in the letter to discuss an incident May 31 “in the area of 52nd and Market.” Each of those contacted said they had received a letter or online message, but that no one personally called or approached them.

“It’s a little naive and kind of invalidates the entire experience of the community here to believe we are just going to trust police officers,” said Carrine, who received a request from police through her Facebook account.

Others, like Pascale Vallee, who took photos and video of events that day, said she worries the images, if shared, could be used to target protesters and people committing property crimes rather than as evidence to hold police accountable.

And while Outlaw has said she wants to hear from anyone who heard officers use racial slurs while attempting to quell the May 31 unrest, Bedjy Jeanty — who alleged both in a lawsuit and in The Inquirer’s story that he heard multiple officers shouting the N-word while trying to clear a crowd from 52nd and Market Streets — said last week he had yet to hear from Internal Affairs.

Kinebrew did not respond to questions about the timing of the police outreach, but said the department is “committed to conducting a thorough and objective investigation.” He also said police were still in the process of contacting people.

Anyone uncomfortable going to police, he said, could file a complaint through the independent Police Advisory Commission (PAC), which would be forwarded to Internal Affairs.

Ideally, said Hetznecker, the lawyer, the oversight and investigatory function for police misconduct would be taken out of the department’s command structure altogether and put in the hands of a more robust version of the Police Advisory Commission, empowered with the tools not only to investigate but enforce decisions based on its findings.

(Under a proposal passed by City Council, Philadelphia voters will be asked in November to approve the creation of a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, an independent body with the power to review complaints and use of force by officers.)

A number of people said the memory of the police actions on May 31 was still too raw, and the department’s Internal Affairs investigators are stuck with the consequences of their colleagues’ choices.

“People aren’t going to just trust the police a week after a couple handshakes or meetings with the protesters,” Vallee said. “Trust is something that needs a lot of time to build. Trust is a lot of transparency.”

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.