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Problem Philly cop, fired for alleged sexual assault, is hired by Sheriff’s Office as deputy chief

Michael Paige's new title comes with a $100,000 salary, but he hasn't paid $165,000 that a federal jury awarded his alleged victim in 2012, according to the victim's attorney.

The office of Sheriff Rochelle Bilal recently has hired a deputy chief with a troubled background as a Philadelphia police officer.
The office of Sheriff Rochelle Bilal recently has hired a deputy chief with a troubled background as a Philadelphia police officer.Read moreMensah M. Dean/ Staff

Michael Paige’s Philadelphia police personnel file was filled with red flags.

Within five years of joining the force in 1990, a supervisor twice recommended that Paige be dismissed for violating departmental rules. Suspensions piled up, 100 days in all, for offenses that ranged from sleeping on the job to lying during an investigation into the death of a man named Moises DeJesus, court records show.

In 2007, Paige was fired and charged with forcing another man, James Harris, to give him oral sex in Fairmount Park. Despite DNA evidence, Paige was acquitted and regained his police job through arbitration, with the help of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5.

Harris filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Paige, and in 2012, a jury ordered Paige to pay Harris $165,000 for “invasions of [Harris’] bodily integrity.” According to Harris’ attorney, Brian Humble, Paige still has yet to pay a dime.

And now Paige has landed a new job — with the Sheriff’s Office. As a deputy chief.

Paige joined the office Oct. 27 and is listed in city payroll records as earning $100,000 a year.

How Paige came to be hired for the new position is unclear. Teresa Lundy, a spokesperson for Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, declined to discuss Paige’s hiring, beyond confirming, in an email, that he works for the office.

“My first thought is, what kind of screening process do they have at the Sheriff’s Office?” Humble asked. “All you had to do is Google his name, and find out this is his background.”

Paige, who in the past denied assaulting Harris, did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think for any government agency, but particularly those that work in public safety and law enforcement, public trust matters a great deal,” said Patrick Christmas, policy director for the Committee of Seventy, the good-government group.

“Unfortunately, the Sheriff’s Office does have a history of internal leadership challenges. And it’s unclear why an individual with what appears to be a fairly checkered history would be brought into that circumstance. ... If there’s an argument for it, we’d like to hear it.”

Harris has said he was smoking marijuana at 2 a.m. at the Belmont Plateau on March 16, 2007, when Paige ordered him into his police cruiser, then sexually assaulted him.

“The whole time, I just felt like I wanted to die. I still feel that way,” Harris told a reporter in 2012.

Afterward, while driving home, Harris spit into a Styrofoam cup. He reported the assault to the District Attorney’s Office, and Internal Affairs officials who investigated the case linked the cup’s contents to Paige and sustained Harris’ allegations.

However, a Common Pleas Court judge, hearing the case without a jury, acquitted Paige of kidnapping and indecent sexual contact, ruling that the encounter had been consensual. When Paige was deposed as part of Harris’ civil rights lawsuit, the officer insisted he hadn’t had any sexual contact with Harris and had only tried to “mentor” him.

As for the DNA evidence in the Styrofoam cup? Paige claimed that he’d often had sex with women in Fairmount Park and suggested that Harris had found one of his used condoms.

The FOP — which successfully fights to get police discipline reduced or overturned in about 70% of arbitration cases, according to an Inquirer analysis — persuaded an arbitrator to reinstate Paige in 2009. The city refused to award Paige a promotion to sergeant in 2014; the union filed a grievance on Paige’s behalf but lost.

» READ MORE: Once-secret records show how the police arbitration system overturned the firings or discipline of more than 100 questionable Philadelphia cops

Harris, meanwhile, has never received any of the $165,000 that a federal jury determined Paige owed him.

Humble said he’s tried to collect the debt.

Harris, who could not be reached for comment, said in 2012 that the civil judgment didn’t feel, to him, like justice: “This police officer raped me and put his penis in my mouth. … He’s still a police officer, so anybody who’s going to Fairmount Park should have something to be worried about.”

“It was high-profile cases like [Paige’s] that really sounded the alarm for long-needed reforms,” said Anthony Erace, the executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, which earlier this year released a report that called for the Police Department’s internal disciplinary process to be overhauled.

“The good thing is that they’re happening now.”

Paige’s hiring is not the first controversy the Sheriff’s Office has seen under Bilal, a former Philadelphia police officer elected in 2019.

Bilal’s first year in office prompted lawsuits from three people she had named to ranking positions, costing the city nearly $500,000 in one case that has settled. Brett Mandel, who lasted just five weeks in 2020 as the new sheriff’s chief financial officer, said he was fired and ushered out of the office by armed deputies after raising concerns about how money was being spent and contracts were being issued.

Mandel sued Bilal and the city in Common Pleas Court in April 2020. The city settled the case in June 2021 while not admitting to any liability. Mandel received $258,668, his attorney received $128,322, and the city paid Bilal’s attorney $77,802 to represent her in that case.

» READ MORE: Inside the once-secret misconduct files of Michael Paige and 26 other Philadelphia police officers

Mandel, in an interview, said he hoped his case “encourages others to speak up when they see wrongdoing.”

”Bad things happen in Philadelphia because good people don’t stop them, because good people say that’s just the way things are around here,” Mandel said.

Mandel noted that Bilal and the city are still being sued in federal court by former Undersheriff Sommer Miller and Anitra Paris, who was the office’s human resources manager. ”Essentially, the entire Sheriff’s Office is gone from when I started,” he said. “It just seems like a place that is fraught with problems. No matter who is involved, it is a place that defies being fixed.”

Miller’s lawsuit complains of mistreatment from Bilal after she identified possible thefts in the advertising department, overspending in the office budget, and sexual harassment. She resigned after being stripped of most of her duties.

Paris’ lawsuit says she was fired after refusing to hire employees without background checks and for declining to give Bilal medical information about employees or their addresses so the sheriff could have them followed.

Robert McNelly, the attorney representing Miller and Paris, declined to comment on the status of their cases.

Staff writer Mensah M. Dean contributed to this article.