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Philly narcotics cops turned suspects into off-the-books confidential informants. Now, defense lawyers want to know more.

“There’s strong evidence to show that this is a pattern, and if you shine enough light it would show there’s a bigger problem here.”

Philadelphia Police Inspector Ray Evers.
Philadelphia Police Inspector Ray Evers.Read moreDavid M Warren / File Photograph

After Philadelphia Police Inspector Raymond Evers called a meeting in May 2017 to introduce Narcotics Bureau staff to a formal policy under which they could flip suspects into off-the-books confidential informants — a policy that would evolve to include falsifying paperwork and hiding information from prosecutors — he became the subject of a yearlong Internal Affairs investigation.

In the end, investigators laid blame on Evers and his supervisor, Chief Inspector Anthony Boyle, as well as two officers involved in falsifying incident reports, in an August 2018 Internal Affairs report obtained by the Inquirer.

Now, defense lawyers are trying to figure out just how widespread and longstanding the practice Evers outlined may have been — and how many cases they’ll argue were tainted as a result.

Over the year since claims about that meeting became public — consequent to a lawsuit filed by the Guardian Civic League and narcotics personnel who said they faced retaliation for resisting what they called an illegal policy — public defenders identified half a dozen cases in which they said undocumented flipping was attempted. Most of those cases have been dropped or tossed out. One defendant in a drug case, Anthony Smith, produced a voicemail from a police officer threatening to arrest Smith’s girlfriend if Smith would not become an informant; that case was later withdrawn. In another, an officer admitted under oath that he’d withheld information about a potential suspect in a drug arrest; a judge quickly dismissed the case.

"There’s strong evidence to show that this is a pattern, and if you shine enough light it would show there’s a bigger problem here,” said Michael Mellon, a lawyer with the Defender Association who worked on those cases. “It’s not something we can do by ourselves. We need partnerships across the board, with the police department, with the DA, with the Police Advisory Commission.”

A police department spokesman declined to comment on whether it will pursue any additional internal investigation, as did a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office.

Although sources familiar with the situation said that Evers had been subjected to a hearing by the Police Board of Inquiry, which determines guilt and any disciplinary action against officers, a police spokesman would not confirm the hearing took place. Evers did not respond to interview requests.

The executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, Hans Menos, said his independent watchdog commission was not aware of the hearing; the commission has limited access to internal documents and proceedings. He said he does not expect to be given the access he would need to conduct his own independent review: “With a lawsuit, there is no chance anyone, including the Law Department, would cosign a public investigation.”

Menos said he also has inquired about whether police were undertaking a review of narcotics arrests under Evers’ tenure. “I hope it was all arrests during that time period were reviewed. I hope each property receipt during that time period was reviewed," he said.

But among the cases identified by the public defender, several predated Evers’ tenure in Narcotics.

And, based on the Internal Affairs investigation, it’s clear Evers saw his role as formalizing existing practices.

He also told investigators he saw flipping as explicitly sanctioned by the department under a newly revised police directive that covered how to release an arrested suspect even if there was probable cause to file charges.

In fact, Staff Inspector Fran Healy, a special adviser to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, had posted a revised version of that policy, Philadelphia Police Directive 12.11, on the very same day Evers called narcotics personnel in for the meeting on flipping. Healy added language — scrubbed from the directive in a subsequent revision — on how to code an arrest after a narcotics supervisor approved a decision not to charge.

Healy told Internal Affairs investigators the revised policy provided both authorization to release arrested suspects, and instruction on how to document the arrest. But he also told them the directive was not intended for flipping, and denied notifying Evers directly of the change. Healy did not respond to a request for comment from the Inquirer.

Menos said it raises questions about who approved the policy.

“The chief inspector and the inspector seem to be saying in their aspect of the interview that they had consulted both the special adviser to the police commissioner, as well as the deputy commissioner, about what they wanted to do strategically, and this was more or less condoned. ... I don’t know if [Evers] also said, ‘I’m intending to tell people to say, when they find small amounts of drugs, that they found it on the highway.’ But it’s concerning.”

Without such a review, it can be difficult to identify problems arising from use of informants. Public defenders did so by following a series of red flags related to a single narcotics squad — including an instance when a public defender reported an officer told him he was transferring to Narcotics and intended to register a client of the defender, who was the officer’s relative, as an informant, in violation of department policy.

“We dug on one case that was half based on luck, chance, and whistle-blowing ... and this is what we found," Mellon said. "That indicates to us that if we were to put the same time and energy into every squad, which we don’t have the resources to do, we would find the same thing — and that’s the problem.”

In one of the cases, resolved in December 2018 with a plea deal for two years’ probation, a man named Matthew Jones was arrested in 2017 and charged with selling narcotics to a confidential informant in a house in West Philadelphia. But public defenders learned that police didn’t actually observe the sale. And though police arrested and charged two men, it turned out that a third man was present, but missing from the paperwork.

In another case, public defenders combing through records of complaints against police noticed one about an incident that occurred at the same time and location that their client, Brandon Harris, was arrested. The claimant reported he was arrested and pressured to flip: “If he did not cooperate with the officers, they would charge him," the complaint notes. "Since that time, the complainant states he has received multiple calls from the officers.”

The problem was, there was no trace of that second person in Harris’ arrest paperwork. At his preliminary hearing, Narcotics Officer Kenneth Oglesby acknowledged there had been a second suspect arrested. A judge dismissed the case, and it would have ripple effects for other cases involving the same group of officers.

In July 2018, prosecutors dropped charges against Yousef Purdie, who was arrested by Oglesby in a different investigation involving an informant. “We’ve got witnesses to the alleged sales that are inside the house that we don’t even know,” a defender complained to a judge. In September, prosecutors dropped charges against another man, Derrick Smith, arrested by the same group of officers.

Similarly, after prosecutors dropped drug charges against Anthony Smith — the recipient of the menacing voicemail, allegedly from Officer James Coolen — they also decided, last September, not to prosecute Albert Willis, who was arrested by Coolen.

Oglesby and Coolen did not respond to requests for comment.

Temple Law professor Jules Epstein said some sort of assessment is needed to identify how many more arrests might be tainted.

“We need a mechanism to identify those cases in which it happened...," he said. “It’s a problem we need to know the dimensions of."

Staff writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.