Police responded to an early morning 911 call and found the woman shaken, with scratch marks on her neck from an assault by her ex-boyfriend, a police officer. He had climbed into her apartment through a bedroom window, choked her, and pushed her to the ground, according to the arrest warrant. Then he began choking a man who was in the room, fleeing only when the cops were called.
The alleged perpetrator, Braheem Hartley, is one of at least six Philadelphia Police officers who have been fired and charged in connection with incidents of domestic violence over the past year. Five of those cases have not previously been made public by the department; they were identified through right-to-know requests and criminal docket searches. All six have appealed through arbitration, and it’s likely some will get their jobs back.
Researchers describe officer-involved domestic violence as a significant and underreported problem. It’s also one of many issues targeted by advocates seeking more accountability and stronger discipline in the contract now being negotiated by the city and the police union, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.
Hartley was named in five citizen complaints in his fewer than four years on the police force, including one allegation of physical abuse — but only one of those complaints was sustained. Hartley’s lawyer, Fortunato Perri, declined to comment or to make him available for an interview.
Another officer, now charged with stalking and harassing a former girlfriend, remained employed for 18 months after the first of three complaints about the harassment, records show. Another officer is alleged to have repeatedly assaulted and stalked her child’s father over more than a year, at times in violation of a protection-from-abuse order, before finally losing her job.
“The entire way that discipline has been dealt with in the Police Department is with a culture that says over and over that ... it’s not being taken as serious as it should be,” said the Rev. Mark Tyler, a leader with the interfaith organization POWER. His group has led a push to demand accountability in the new contract after a year plagued by controversy, from the Plain View Project revelations of offensive Facebook postings to a high-level commander charged with serial sexual assault, to the abrupt resignation of Commissioner Richard Ross.
“If you follow the stories of the ones that have done the most egregious things and you look back in their files, there was probably a trail that said, years before, this person was going to be a problem,” Tyler said.
In a nationwide review of more than 300 cases of officer-involved domestic violence, Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University, found that about 20% also had been subjects of federal civil-rights lawsuits. “Sometimes, what we see is that this is a symptom of a bigger problem,” he said.
Researchers investigating the prevalence of domestic violence in law enforcement households have placed it as high as 40%.
Compounding the problem is the sense that reporting violence could put victims in greater danger, by angering partners who have ready access to weapons and to confidential information such as the location of safe haven shelters, said Vashti Bledsoe, director of the Bilingual Domestic Violence Program at Lutheran Settlement House in Philadelphia.
So most of the time, she said, victims don’t report.
“We have clients who’ve said their partner is wielding weapons — it’s not necessarily something the victim would want to report. I have suggested: Would you want to go up the ranks to the sergeant? Even that just doesn’t necessarily feel very safe,” said Olivia Taduran, counseling supervisor at the program.
When victims did complain to supervisors, the outcomes were mixed. Some provided helpful interventions, but others didn’t believe the victims’ claims. In one case, both husband and wife were police officers — and after the wife complained, she was shunned at work and ended up leaving her job, Taduran said.
Missing from the Disciplinary Code
Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said in a statement that acts of domestic violence run contrary to the department’s values, and that the department thoroughly investigates and adjudicates accusations in accordance with the law and the police Disciplinary Code.
That code, however, does not list domestic violence as a punishable offense. “There is no mention of stalking in the disciplinary code,” the union noted in grieving one officer’s firing.
An Inquirer review of 170 cases from 2011 to 2019, in which officers filed union grievances over their firing, found 17 that stemmed from domestic incidents — more than any other infraction except “insubordination.” The majority won their jobs back through arbitration.
Only three of the 17 resulted in criminal convictions, including one in which police responding to the scene found the victim clutching her shoulder and holding a handful of her own hair. All three were convicted of disorderly conduct; one also pleaded to harassment.
Stinson said such outcomes often are designed to allow officers to return to work. Under federal law, a person convicted of even misdemeanor domestic violence is not allowed to carry a firearm, a police job requirement. “So they are convicted of crimes that have nothing to do with domestic violence,” Stinson said.
Disorderly conduct is a typical outcome, he added. “Since no court has said disorderly conduct falls under a qualified misdemeanor of domestic violence, that’s a favorable plea, and the officer will perhaps be able to get his job back.”
Most of the cases involving Philadelphia officers dismissed last year are still pending.
One officer, Mishel Molina-Mejia, is accused of assaulting her child’s father, throwing a glass at him, biting him, striking him in the face, and crashing her car into his — alleged behavior that spanned more than a year before her termination, according to the warrant for her arrest on charges of assault, harassment, stalking, and criminal mischief.
Veteran officer Robert McDonald also is charged with stalking and harassing a former girlfriend. His record shows that three complaints were made about the harassment, starting in March 2018. But the first two complaints were marked “not sustained,” and he was not fired until November 2019.
Two more officers, Nikia Boskie and Arnold Grisson, are charged in connection with separate incidents described as domestic in court documents or by people familiar with the charges.
Grisson’s lawyer, Wayne Bennett, said the domestic incident started when Grisson walked in on his estranged wife, a Philadelphia cop, and her supervisor, in Grisson’s home, and a conflict ensued.
The case is complicated but, Bennett said, Grisson “is not the bad guy in this case.”
The woman had obtained a protection-from-abuse order, but it had expired, Bennett said. Grisson is preparing to fight the case to trial — and hopes to return to work on the force.
A lawyer representing Boskie declined to comment. The union did not respond to requests for comment.
Such cases are complicated — and likely a reflection of the deep trauma that officers experience on the job, said Susan Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center on Violence and Abuse at the University of Pennsylvania.
“And with more women police officers, now officers are marrying one another, and so the trauma they experience in the job then gets brought into the home, and how are they going to dissipate that trauma?” she said.
But charging documents don’t always tell the whole story, according to John Sasse, a 25th District officer who was fired last May after 11 years on the job. According to the Bucks County criminal complaint, in March 2019 he grabbed his girlfriend by the throat, banged her head against a refrigerator, and, once she fell to the ground, began kicking her in the head. According to Sasse, she had actually assaulted him after he discovered her heroin stash and kicked her out of his Bensalem home.
He was charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment, but a handwritten note on the complaint says “if [the case goes to] trial, will have the right to add” felony strangulation.
Sasse said the allegations were false. But he pleaded guilty — to disorderly conduct. “I was told, taking the plea I took, I’m going to be able to get my job back,” he said.
Under the contract that expires in June, the Disciplinary Code provides no penalty for misdemeanors like disorderly conduct that carry sentences of a year or less. Even for more serious crimes, dismissal is not mandated until the second offense.
City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said constituents across the city have contacted him with their demands for the police contract — but the conversation is about more than just discipline. His goals are a stronger Police Advisory Commission, changes to the residency requirement, an end to stop and frisk, and a system that puts grievance decisions in the hands of a three-arbitrator panel rather than a single arbitrator.
In 2010, then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey tried to modify the code to, among other things, add offenses that would lead to automatic dismissal, including all criminal acts carrying a penalty of more than a year, whether or not they result in charges. But the union successfully fought many of his changes.
Ramsey said there are no easy fixes. Such cases are hampered by the reality that victims often don’t want to press charges — and that arbitrators often side with the union in decisions subject to little public scrutiny. But he thinks transparency would help.
“I do believe that arbitration decisions ought to be made public,” he said. “If they’re going to give the person their job back, they ought to explain that to the public.”
The Inquirer’s investigative reporting is supported in part by the Lenfest Institute’s Investigative News Fund. Gifts to support the Investigative News Fund can be made at www.inquirer.com/donate. (Editorial content is created independently of the fund’s donors. A listing of Lenfest Institute donors can be found at lenfestinstitute.org.)