A former Philadelphia police officer was charged Friday with murder in the death of an unarmed Black man on an East Germantown sidewalk.
Officer Eric Ruch Jr. shot 25-year-old Dennis Plowden Jr. following a high-speed car chase in December 2017.
Ruch fired one bullet through Plowden’s upraised hand that tore into his head, according to a grand jury presentment. Plowden, sitting on a sidewalk, did not have a weapon.
Following an internal investigation of the shooting, Ruch, who had been an officer for 10 years, was terminated from the police force in October 2018. The criminal investigation took another two years to conclude, partially due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ruch, 33, who lives in Upper Bucks County, was charged with first-degree murder, third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and possession of an instrument of crime. He turned himself in Friday morning.
His lawyer, Fortunato Perri Jr., said, “We’re confident that the evidence will prove that Officer Ruch was legally justified in the use of force under the circumstances.”
Ruch is the second former city police officer charged with murder by District Attorney Larry Krasner, who said shortly after being sworn into office in 2018 that his predecessors were “biased” for failing to charge cops in fatal shootings. The new charges follow months of protests across the country in response to the death of George Floyd and other victims of police violence. The protests also have brought attention to problems of systemic bias and racism in policing.
“Dennis Plowden was shot and killed without justification by former Officer Eric Ruch,” the grand jury wrote in its presentment. “Mr. Plowden was shot in the head, while he was unarmed, half lying, half sitting on the Opal Street sidewalk with his left hand raised in front of his head, as the officers shouted commands to show his hands.”
The grand jury found that Plowden appeared “dazed and lost” after he stumbled out of a borrowed car after the crash. While Ruch’s colleagues took defensive positions and assessed the situation, Ruch did not seek cover and instead fired.
“Who shot?” one police officer asked, after patting down Plowden and finding no weapon, according to the presentment. “It was me. I fired,” Ruch said.
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The grand jury also found that another police officer at the scene — not named in the report — gave “two irreconcilable versions” of what happened.
On the night of the shooting, the officer “clearly stated, twice” that he had gotten out of his car and was “deliberately targeted” by the car Plowden was driving. But in his testimony before the grand jury, the same officer “stated he never got out of the car at all,” according to the presentment.
Police have said they began pursuing Plowden on the night of Dec. 27, 2017, because he was driving a borrowed Hyundai that had been linked to a homicide — although they said he was not a suspect in the homicide. Plowden crashed the car, then got out onto the sidewalk.
“He was confused when the cops got out,” one witness told the grand jury. “Dennis was just looking around like he was lost.”
Officers at the scene said they were yelling for Plowden to show his hands and that he had been reaching his right hand into his pocket. An officer later recovered packets of what was believed to be heroin.
(Vincent Corrigan, an assistant district attorney in the Special Investigations Unit, said at a news conference Friday afternoon that the homicide case remains open but that police no longer believe the Hyundai was involved.)
Plowden had been on his way to deliver Christmas gifts to his mother in East Germantown, his family said.
“He was unarmed,” Plowden’s grandmother, Stacy McCoy, told The Inquirer shortly after the shooting. “They shot him like a goddamned dog.”
“They could have stun-gunned him. They didn’t have to do a kill shot,” McCoy said. “They murdered my grandson like all the other Black kids out here.”
Earlier in 2017, Ruch shot another man while on duty, and returned to work a month later. That suspect had been armed.
Plowden’s wife, Tania Bond, 33, who would have celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary on Oct. 20, said she can now finally go to his grave and report some good news.
“I can go to the cemetery and say, ‘Hey, hon, I know we still have a long way to go, but progress is being made,' ” she said in an interview Friday. Bond, the mother of Plowden’s 3-year-old son, said the nearly three years since her husband’s death has been painful and confusing.
"I’m sitting at home wondering, where is Dennis’ justice? Because everybody else’s justice is moving on before his," she said. “So today took me by surprise to know that Ruch has finally been charged for his actions.
“But will he actually be found guilty of it? That’s why it’s such a long road to go.”
Plowden was a father of two and stepfather of three. He was working as a house rehabber at the time of this death.
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, said in a statement Friday that the union would back Ruch.
“We will represent former police officer Eric Ruch Jr. against these serious charges,” McNesby said. “Our attorneys will review the allegations and appropriately defend this officer. Officer Ruch Jr. is entitled to due process and we believe the judicial system will protect his rights to a fair trial.”
The number of police shootings in Philadelphia has declined significantly in recent years. The Police Department reported 59 shootings by officers in 2012, and 43 in 2013. Following a news story on the sharp increase in police use of deadly force that year, then-commissioner Charles Ramsey asked the Justice Department to review the Police Department’s policies and help implement reforms.
In 2017, the department reported 14 shootings by police, and in 2018, officers fired at 13 people. Last year, police said officers shot at people 9 times while on duty.
Paul Hetznecker, Bond’s attorney who filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the city and Ruch, said he and the city are in settlement negotiations.
“Holding police officers accountable for the use of deadly force in this city is long overdue," Hetznecker said. “The brutalization of young African American men has a long history in our city. The current Black Lives Matter movement reflects the immediacy of this paradigm shift."
In September 2018, Krasner charged fired officer Ryan Pownall with first-degree murder for fatally shooting David Jones after a traffic stop in North Philadelphia in 2017. It was the first time in two decades that a Philadelphia officer had been charged over an on-duty shooting, and was immediately blasted as an “absurd disgrace” by the police officers' union. A judge later downgraded the charges against Pownall to third-degree murder and related counts.
Pownall’s trial is currently scheduled for April 2021 — a delay prompted in part due to efforts by Krasner’s office to have a trial judge alter jury instructions on when cops are legally allowed to use their guns. The courts have rejected Krasner’s arguments, which Pownall’s lawyers have described as an attempt by prosecutors to change the laws against a defendant before trial.
Krasner’s office last week appealed the issue to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Hans Menos, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, noted Friday that historically it has been difficult for prosecutors to win convictions against police officers.
“We have not held police officers accountable the way that residents of cities have wanted us to,” said Menos, who is leaving his post later this month. “Dennis Plowden was involved in an activity that certainly should not have resulted in the end of his life. The discharge of a firearm at him was out of policy, and blatantly against police department rules.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.