Notorious Philly cop, charged with beating Temple student, has a checkered and charmed past
Despite a checkered past, Philadelphia Staff Iinspector Joseph Bologna Jr., ended up on the front lines of this week’s protests. His aggressive behavior, some captured on video, led the District Attorney to charge him with assault.
Joseph Bologna Jr., a 31-year Philadelphia police veteran who rose through the ranks to become a staff inspector, once professed he would never have a problem with citizens recording him in the line of duty.
“With the power that the community gives us, we are all held to a higher standard. We just have to deal with it,” he told the Metro newspaper in a 2015 story marking the one-year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old whose death set off days of protest and unrest in Ferguson, Mo.
But as demonstrations erupted across Philadelphia and the nation, after yet another in-custody death, in yet another city, it was citizens recording Bologna’s own heavy-handed tactics that got him in trouble.
Bologna, 54, operations commander for the department’s patrol bureau, was quickly pulled from the street Thursday evening and his gun taken away after The Inquirer reported that video footage on YouTube and Twitter showed him viciously beating a Temple University student with a baton during protests stemming from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in police custody.
On Friday, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced his intent to charge Bologna with felony aggravated assault — stoking ongoing tensions with the city police union chief, John McNesby, who immediately came to Bologna’s defense and accused Krasner of carrying out an “anti-police agenda."
Meanwhile, other video continues to surface of the inspector erupting amid the civil unrest — lunging at a TV reporter and striking his security guard, and grabbing a young woman in the middle of the street who apparently tapped his bicycle tire.
“We have to do what we can … to make sure that putting him out there does not become a flash point and showing that I am true — we are true — to our word in ensuring accountability," Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said at a Friday news conference, confirming that Bologna was under investigation and had been pulled from the streets.
Similar scenes have played out across the country, as citizen videos of police conduct at protests have led to accusations of excessive force and official retribution, from Buffalo — where two officers were suspended after being seen shoving a 75-year-old protester to the ground — to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where an officer was suspended after shoving a woman kneeling behind him with her hands up, inflaming an otherwise mostly peaceful protest. In Dallas, the police chief now says officers have a “duty to intervene” if they see a colleague use inappropriate physical force.
In Philadelphia, those who have been tracking Bologna’s career want to know how he got there in the first place and who decided that he should set a tone for his subordinates on the street.
“Who hired him? And who decided that?” asked Cayley Cohan, of Cherry Hill, whom Bologna tackled during a protest Tuesday in Center City — a scene caught on video and spread widely over social media. “Had they charged him the first time he assaulted someone, none of us would have had to go through this.”
Accused of misconduct
A South Philly native and the son of a cop, Bologna has often found himself at the center of controversy over police misconduct and force deployed by officers under his command.
In the early 2000s, while overseeing an elite Narcotics Field Unit, he was caught on video instructing its members to disable security cameras during a raid of a bodega. He later told Internal Affairs investigators that he gave the order to protect the identities of plainclothes officers in a dangerous line of work.
But several of them were later accused of fabricating evidence, robbing store owners of cash and merchandise, and lying on search warrants to cover their tracks, as documented in a 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the Philadelphia Daily News. Only one of those officers was fired.
Bologna received only a suspension for “failing to properly supervise” and was given a different command, overseeing the 19th Police District in West Philadelphia.
There, he managed a tactical squad that would rack up scores of misconduct complaints.
In just one 18-month period between 2014 and 2015, his officers were the subject of a combined 25 civilian complaints and 37 departmental offenses — including claims of physical abuse, thinly supported car stops and home searches, vandalism, threats, and theft, the news outlet City & State Pennsylvania reported in 2018.
Just a year earlier, Bologna had received a merit promotion to staff inspector, the rank he holds today. He has been invited to speak to new supervisors in the department.
“Honored for the opportunity to address our newly promoted @PhillyPolice sergeants and corporals today. Excited by their energy and eagerness to get their new assignments & start crushing it!” Bologna tweeted in December 2019.
Fellow officers and some residents from the West Philadelphia district he oversaw for years described him as gregarious and accessible — even gentlemanly. He readily gave interviews to the media and frequently participated in events aimed at building bridges with the community.
Even after prosecutors announced their intent to charge him Friday, McNesby, the police union head, described Bologna as one of the department’s “most decorated and respected police leaders.” The two came up together through the ranks after joining the force as young narcotics officers.
“Inspector Bologna’s dedication to our city for over 30 years is unmatched,” he said in a statement.
When 8-year-old Jayanna Powell was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2016, Bologna not only oversaw the investigation but also showed up at memorial walks and personally checked on the family in grief. The girl’s mother, in turn, comforted him when his own father died.
“When we all work together, just as human beings, and we all care for one another, this is how it’s supposed to work all the time,” he told the PhillyVoice in a 2017 interview. “This little girl brought not only a family together, but a district and community more together.”
But on the street during a week of protests, videos posted to social media depict him as a menace, showing him overreacting to provocations and wielding his baton freely.
At 10th and Market Streets on Tuesday, Danilo Lavia was livestreaming a demonstration on his Instagram account, @keepitdangerous. He had attended the protest simply to document it, he said.
The protest had been peaceful as thousands of people sang, chanted, danced, and eventually wound through Center City for hours. On Market Street, police had lined either side of the street at the intersections, blocking access to cross streets. Lavia’s video depicts what happened next to Cohan, the 20-year-old Cherry Hill demonstrator.
After tapping the wheel of a white-shirted officer’s bike with her foot, the officer, whose name tag reads “Bologna,” reacts immediately and aggressively. He grabs her by the arm of her sweatshirt, says something inaudible. Cohan shouts back: “F— you, I didn’t touch your bike." Then, Bologna throws his bike aside, lunges forward, and tackles her.
In an interview Friday, Cohan said the bike tap was accidental. Nevertheless, once she was on the ground, another officer grabbed her by her wrist, which she had previously broken and was in a cast that ripped off during the struggle. The officers handcuffed her tightly, she said, and ignored her complaints about the restraints worsening her previous injuries.
“I was banging on the back of the cop car van for at least 15 minutes, begging them to come loosen my handcuffs ... [and] they basically laughed in my face,” she said. “I spent over a day and a half in jail with no cast. I had to keep my arm as safe as I could.”
Cohan says she was taken into custody on charges of assault, rioting, disorderly conduct, and reckless endangerment. A judge told her that officers claimed she had kicked and spit on them — something she insists she did not do.
Lavia, who took video of the encounter, said he was disappointed in how the police had handled the situation — on Tuesday and throughout the weekend.
“The inability of police to deescalate the situation in the end causes more harm than good. What this guy Bologna did the other day was put his life, the life of all his colleagues, and all the protesters in danger,” he said. “Because it takes one crazy person in the crowd to not have restraint — in the same way [Bologna] didn’t.”
The day before, in the incident for which Bologna faces prosecution, he brought his baton down sharply on the head of Evan Gorski, 21, a small-framed engineering student at Temple University, even after Gorski had retreated.
Gorski spent 40 hours in custody and needed 10 staples in his head, according to his lawyer. The protest-related charges against Gorski were quickly dismissed when prosecutors reviewed the video and other evidence.
Michael Mellon, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said he was shocked that Bologna would be placed in a position of handling large, potentially angry crowds. But he wasn’t surprised by what has been captured on video, given Bologna’s aggressive use of stop-and-frisk in the past and his history of discipline.
“I was watching the video and I heard a person say ‘Bologna,’ and I’m like, ‘It can’t be him,’” Mellon said. “How is he on the front lines doing this? … You put a guy that you know is bad in charge of a whole unit of people in a high-pressure situation.”
Mellon said Bologna’s attack on Gorski is a “clear violation” of the department’s use-of-force directive.
“He just went after him,” he said. “The more important problem is, he is a supervisor who has a long history of discipline and he has been promoted. There is a clear lack of accountability if you’re promoting the bad apples.”
Bologna could not be reached for comment. He told WHYY on Friday, “Right now, I’m handling operations from the office," but declined to elaborate.
Gorski, through his civil attorney, Jonathan Feinberg, declined to comment. The lawyer said they are gathering evidence for a potential civil-rights lawsuit.
“He feels strongly that everything that people saw happen to him has been happening to people of color for decades,” Feinberg said. “If Evan can use this terrible thing that happened to him to bring attention to what happens to people of color all the time there will be a positive result out of this incident.”
That Bologna would act so rashly in a public setting is somewhat surprising, given his familiarity with viral videos.
After a video emerged in 2012 that appeared to show Philadelphia police officers punching a slightly built Latina woman from behind during an altercation, Bologna, then captain of the 19th Police District, discussed with Philadelphia Magazine what was then a newly emerging phenomenon of citizens filming police activity and disseminating it widely over social media.
“That’s the thing with these videos,” he said. “They’re short, and a lot of times there are things that happen preceding the video, or after the video, or out of the camera’s view that are important.”
Bologna acknowledged even in his own district, reaction to such videos going viral has split along generational lines. Younger cops, he said, expect everything they do is fair game for public scrutiny.
“Some of the older officers feel like it’s not fair,” he said. “They feel like they’re being micromanaged or armchair-quarterbacked by the media or the public on everything they do.”