Breaking news, as they like to say on CNN: Weekends can be a good thing. When I last saw you Thursday night, I was furious about the failure to bring charges against Philly cops from the Narcotics Field Unit who back in 2010 -- thanks to courageous, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by my Daily News colleagues Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, in a series called "Tainted Justice" -- were linked to allegations of theft, misconduct, and, in the case of one officer, sexual abuse.
To be clear, while allegations of police misconduct are frequent in Philadelphia, criminal charges are rare and convictions ever rarer. Deference to law-enforcement is wired into the system; the prosecutors asked to look at allegations of brutality or official misconduct are often people who also work with those cops in a collegial way. What's more, most citizen complaints tend to come down to trust, and in rough neighborhoods it can often be an officer's word against someone with a criminal record.
This one was different. Neither the bodega owners nor the women who alleged they were sexually assaulted had a criminal record. In one case where a bodega was ransacked and allegedly robbed, a backup lens actually captured the narcotics officers slashing the wires to the primary camera. Not only were three women willing to talk about their horrific encounters with officer Thomas Tolstoy, two of them went on the record with their full names, and one, Dagma Rodriquez, told her story on camera. Watch her story (at the bottom of this post) -- and you'll be baffled as to why there were no charges.
Instead, an investigation dragged on for four mind-numbingly long years, and at the end of it all no one was charged. The feds reportedly raised questions about the credibility of some witnesses -- but none of the bodega owners were even called before a grand jury. What's more, the two woman who said that Tolstoy lifted their shirts and fondled their breasts say they were not interviewed by either federal or local prosecutors. That last part is beyond shocking.
I'm never a big fan of injustice, but this one sent the outrage meter to 11. Which gets back to my point about the weekend; if I had written something Friday, I was so mad I probably would have said something I'd regret. But here's what actually matters, I wasn't alone. To the contrary, a lot of people took to social media -- Twitter and Facebook -- to complain about a gross miscarriage of justice.
And so late Friday night, something remarkable happened. The Philadelphia DA's office -- which had earlier said this was the feds' investigation and they had declined to follow up on their work -- announced it will now review the cases of the two women who said Tolstoy groped them. They may also reconsider other aspects of the series. The first assistant DA, Ed McCann, said "[i]t makes sense for us to do this now given the criticism we've received for something we never looked at before."
Translation: The DA's office actually responded to the public outcry. That's amazing. Another Daily News colleague, columnist Helen Ubinas, really hit on something last year when she coined a phrase, "The Philly Shrug." Simply put, too many Philadelphians are so exhausted by so much corruption that the normal reaction to it is not outrage, but a shrug.
What happened last week was the opposite...Philly Unshrugged. And it was something to see. So why stop there?!
First of all, while it's fair to discuss whether the DA's office should have jumped on some or all of this case sooner, I do think right now we should applaud DA Seth Williams for saying he'll listen to these two women and their story. He's very active on Twitter (as I've learned, for better or worse) as @DASethWilliams, so you can thank him for this move and encourage him to look at every aspect of the "Tainted Justice" probe -- and to more broadly make a priority of police misconduct.
But there's a lot more than can be done:
1. Although local federal prosecutors inexplicably passed on this, I think there's a strong case to be made that these law-abiding bodega owners had their civil rights violated. Perhaps with some community pressure, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department can re-open that aspect of the case. The current head of the unit is Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney Jocelyn Samuels; the unit's public phone number is (202) 514-4609.
UPDATE: A reader said he was told to submit complaints in writing:
U.S. Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Office of the Assistant Attorney General, Main
Washington, D.C. 20530
2. According to several news accounts, Tolstoy is now, believe it or not, CEO of an aspiring Philadelphia charter school called the Public Safety Charter High School that seeks to train the law-enforcement officers of tomorrow (!). It seems that charter-school applications are on hold and there's been little word from the proposed school in recent months, but it wouldn't hurt for someone to contact the School Reform Commission (215-400-4010) to make sure they've seen the Dagma Rodriguez video before they approve any school with Tolstoy involved.
3. Why has Mayor Nutter been silent on this -- is he really OK with the way the case has been handled so far? Ask him at @Michael_Nutter.
4. Social media activism actually helps: Use Twitter and Facebook to demand the authorities seek justice for Dagma and the others. Please use this hashtag -- #UntaintJustice, or for a discussion of wider issues of police misconduct, use #MyPhillyPD . (If you wonder why, read this.)
5. Most importantly, look forward. Ask the men and women who want to be Philadelphia's next mayor after Nutter leaves office in 2015 what they will do to change the current system where so few allegations of police misconduct stick (remember this guy) and the end result is so often that the officer accused of wrongdoing gets his job back with back overtime pay (what is that, even?). This case has demonstrated, yet again, that it's time to scrap the relatively toothless Police Advisory Commission that was created in 1994 and replace it with a body with real powers to address misconduct and abuse.
6. Any other good suggestions? I'll update the post and add it to the list!
Real positive change can come from a terrible story. Keep un-shrugging, Philly. I like your new posture!