A decade ago this month, when Brittney Mills was 19, she stopped by her boyfriend’s house in West Philadelphia. Minutes later, Philadelphia Police Narcotics Field Unit officers raided the place — and Mills’ life was turned upside down.
The squad included Jeffrey Walker, who later admitted he and fellow NFU officers routinely planted evidence, robbed suspects, and committed perjury. They said they found drugs in the freezer. The only person arrested was Mills, who had no criminal record but had previously had an altercation with Walker. He told her, “This will teach you not to get smart with officers ever again.”
Charged with drug dealing, Mills spent five days in jail, and a year and a half on probation. The consequences didn’t stop there: She lost her job. She became homeless after her father kicked her out, believing she was a drug dealer. Worse, she lost custody of her 3-year-old daughter, then in the care of Mills’ mother.
“Eleven years later, I’m still trying to snap out of it and get back to reality. Every day I have to relive this is a nightmare,” Mills said.
In 2014, Mills sued in federal court. But her case was funneled onto a single docket with hundreds of others. Not one has gone to trial, though 212 NFU cases have been settled, for a total of $7.2 million. The rest, including Mills’ case, have been placed on indefinite hold since February 2017 — meaning nearly four years with no progress.
“People’s rights were violated by the police, and now they’re being violated again by the court,” said Mills’ lawyer, Margaret Boyce Furey, who has 10 cases stayed under the court order. She first asked for the stay to be removed back in 2017, and renewed the request last summer. Both motions were denied. “There is no incentive for the city to entertain any settlement offers, because everything is in suspense. They know they’re not going to trial.”
U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond did not directly respond to a reporter’s questions about the outlook for these cases, but issued an order Jan. 8 that included a section titled: “Path Going Forward.”
In it, he said the cases were placed on hold “at the urging of lead plaintiffs’ counsel and defense counsel” pending settlement negotiations and the resolution of a handful of “bellwether” cases, which would be indicators of how much, if anything, the city would have to pay out for the remaining cases. (The stay was ordered on Feb. 8, 2017, the same day one of the lawyers then serving as plaintiffs’ liaison counsel, Larry Krasner, announced his campaign for Philadelphia district attorney.)
Diamond said the plan still includes trials for the remaining bellwether cases, even as there are fewer and fewer cases to follow the “bellwethers.” He said the main factor causing delays now is the pandemic, which has put jury trials on hold until spring.
One bellwether case settled for $230,000 last year, resolving a complaint by James McIntyre, who claimed the squad stole about $9,000 from him and planted drugs in his truck. He spent four months in jail.
In that case, Diamond had denied summary judgment in a damning 33-page memorandum outlining corruption and cover-ups within the Police Department and its Internal Affairs Bureau. “The IAB functioned poorly, in part because of a perception that it operated corruptly: Investigators did not maintain confidentiality, and preferred officers ... were protected by supervisors,” Diamond wrote. He also noted that federal prosecutors began declining cases eight years before the Philadelphia district attorney finally acknowledged a problem.
The city, for its part, said it is negotiating in good faith, independent of the court’s process — as indicated by the large number of cases already settled. In making offers, a spokesperson said, “the city considers the facts and evidence in each case, and also considers valuations of previously settled, factually analogous matters.”
Some lawyers see it differently. They believe that the city is now waiting for desperate plaintiffs to give up and accept “nuisance” settlements. l said that of his 36 clients, three accepted relatively small settlement offers, and two have died.
“The problem is we have people who, because of this, they have nothing,” Shingles said. “The city knew this and exploited the desperation of these people to try to get rid of them ... and was not prompted or encouraged by the court to be reasonable.”
Michael Pileggi, the lawyer now serving as liaison counsel, said he was hopeful Diamond’s order last week would jump-start the stalled negotiation process. “To me the best route for everyone is ... to resolve them,” he said. One of his clients, Kareem Torain, who spent 13 years in prison before his case was overturned, has been fighting seven years for compensation.
Meanwhile, more civil cases are still being filed, and immediately placed in suspense over plaintiffs’ objections.
One involved Kevin Gordon, accused of dealing drugs by the NFU squad. After they couldn’t find drugs on him, they continued with a warrantless search of his home, drove him around the neighborhood in a police car for hours and arrested his brother, demanding he provide them with cocaine, according to his complaint. Weeks later, branded a “snitch” due to his interactions with the squad, Gordon was shot in the arm and leg. The officers then went to his hospital room seeking the cocaine his brother had promised, he alleges, before they finally arrested him again. He ended up serving six months in jail.
The city offered Gordon $2,000 — the “last and best offer,” city lawyers warned last year.
Philadelphia officials first acknowledged misconduct by the squad in 2012, when then-District Attorney Seth Williams told police he would no longer call the narcotics officers as witnesses. The next year, a group of narcotics officers — Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser — were fired and charged. But only Walker, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with federal investigators, was convicted; the six others were acquitted and reinstated to the police force.
Yet, Philadelphia judges have continued to overturn cases involving the officers: So far, 1,138 cases have been overturned, according to Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia. He said 16 cases are still under review.
All told, the city has paid out more than $65 million in civil rights settlements against the police just since 2017. Most recently, it settled with Chester Hollman, who was exonerated of murder in 2019 after 28 years in prison, for $9.8 million. That breaks down to $350,000 per year in prison.
Mills, who is now a certified nursing assistant and has reunited with her family, said the damage is greater than just the jail time.
After her arrest, she had so many questions that she enrolled in a college program for criminal justice. She did not complete it but is still paying off the student loans.