Two years ago, when then-Philadelphia homicide detective Philip Nordo was accused of making secret cash payments to an imprisoned informer, Police Commissioner Richard Ross faced a dilemma: what to do with the officer while the investigation played out.
His solution: assign him to a surveillance camera monitoring unit which happens to sit squarely in the midst of a highly sensitive, federally funded, Homeland Security intelligence-sharing center.
The location seems to have become the department’s holding place of choice for officers on “restricted duty,” having been deemed, at least temporarily, unfit for street duty because of pending criminal charges or a checkered past.
Ross says assignment to the camera unit affords a low-risk way to get work from accused officers still on the payroll. Critics, however, contend the practice is a possible security risk, given the unit’s proximity to scores of local and federal agents handling sensitive investigative information. The department typically has not notified its partners when transferring compromised officers to the facility.
“This is the last place you should put an officer who has been credibly accused of lying or tampering with evidence or abusing people’s rights,” said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “I would rather have them do nothing.”
Ross, in an email, defended the practice as an “efficient” use of the officers, who, he said, “work under stringent supervision, and have no access to data or information systems.”
“This has been a practice since 2012,” he wrote. “Since that time, to our knowledge, there have been no issues regarding officers accessing sensitive information, or utilizing the cameras for dubious purposes.”
Still, the practice of assigning officers under a cloud of suspicion to the center troubled University of Nebraska Omaha criminal justice professor Samuel Walker.
“Their integrity is suspect,” said Walker, adding they need to be put in places “where they can do the least possible harm.”
He noted that many departments detail such officers to the records room.
“Records is good. Dealing with file folders is good,” he said, but the camera-monitoring room is “a terrible thing to do.”
Michael Chitwood Jr. is a former Philadelphia police officer who now serves as sheriff of Volusia County, Fla., which includes Daytona Beach. Chitwood, whose namesake father is Upper Darby’s police chief, said finding an appropriate assignment for an officer accused of wrongdoing is “not an easy problem. It gets to the heart of the criminal justice system.”
Chitwood’s advice for police commanders is to assign such officers “as far away as you can” from any sensitive units. "I’ve paid them to stay home,” he said.
It is a perennial issue in Philadelphia where a strong police union makes it difficult to dismiss officers, even those with records checkered enough to leave them unwanted as witnesses in criminal cases.
It was revealed last year that the District Attorney’s Office maintained a list of officers seen as too compromised by past misconduct to be used as witnesses in trials. There were 66 officers on the list at the time. Nordo was on the list before he was ultimately fired in September 2017. He was charged last month with sexually assaulting witnesses in cases he was handling.
In a brief interview at his home four days before his arrest, Nordo confirmed that he had been posted at the intelligence facility “a little while.” He then closed the door on this reporter.
Over the years, the department has assigned accused officers to the impound lot, a check-in room for officers testifying in court, and an office answering calls about minor traffic accidents.
According to Ross, the Real Time Camera Center, which monitors surveillance cameras throughout the city, was added to the list seven years ago.
The center is set in a corner of a vast, open, warehouse-like space in South Philadelphia that houses the larger Delaware Valley Intelligence Center (DVIC).
The DVIC is a collaboration among local and federal law enforcement agencies in Philadelphia and 11 surrounding counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. It is one of 79 so-called “fusion centers” in the United States and U.S. territories created in concert with the Department of Homeland Security. Seen as an intelligence-sharing operation, DVIC allows Philadelphia police and other local departments to interact with analysts from an array of federal agencies, including Homeland Security, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and U.S. Coast Guard.
The Philadelphia Police Department deploys 135 staffers to the intelligence center, which is located in the 2800 block of South 20th Street. The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, the ATF, the FBI, and Homeland Security each provide one full-time analyst. The federal government annually contributes $2.5 million in funding; Philadelphia ponies up almost another $1 million for maintenance and other expenses.
Philadelphia Chief Inspector Daniel MacDonald, who oversees the DVIC, said a goal of the intelligence center is to build relationships between the various agencies represented.
“The first time we work together shouldn’t be when there’s a crisis,” MacDonald said.
Real Time Crime Center, where officers on restricted duty work, includes a glass-enclosed section that houses camera monitors. Up to a dozen officers, not all on restricted duty, can work there. Others in the unit sit at a bank of computers nearby, close to some of the city and federal analysts stationed in the intelligence center.
In addition to monitoring the cameras, officers on restricted duty staff the entrance to the facility, checking staff credentials and escorting visitors into the DVIC.
During a visit this month to the camera center by an Inquirer reporter and photographer, there were two restricted duty officers working in the enclosed area. They were being managed by two supervisors — a sergeant and lieutenant. MacDonald said he made sure there was “overkill” with supervision for the restricted-duty officers.
Officers on restricted duty have limited computer access to police intelligence. For instance, they do not have access to tracing tools for cell phones, license plates readers, and a variety of other sophisticated tracking software.
For all of that, the department has typically not notified other DVIC agencies when it places compromised officers in the camera unit.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel 3rd, for instance, learned of the assignments only when asked about them by a reporter. He said he was surprised that problematic officers would be sent to the site and stressed that he assigned only his best analysts to work at the intelligence center. He stopped short, however, of criticizing Ross.
Mike Sena, president of the National Fusion Center Association, said that although there is no requirement for police to tell law enforcement partners about the backgrounds of officers they send to fusion centers, “I certainly hope they would.”
Ross said his department was “not obligated to notify other agencies of the specifics of its staffing” but “would most certainly discuss the issue” with any agency that was partner with the city at the DVIC.
Ross, in his email, indicated he understood the criticism of his decision to place officers on restricted duty in the DVIC, and remained open to reconsidering it.
“We are aware of the perception that this practice may create,” he wrote, “and as is the case with all of our policies and procedures, we will continue to evaluate the effectiveness and propriety of our current method of operation.”