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With lawyers as witnesses, police shooting victim prevailed

If three of the witnesses to the police shooting of Philippe Holland weren't lawyers, he would have been just another unarmed citizen shot by police.

Attorneys Valerie Palazzo (left) and Graciela Christlieb witnessed the shooting of Philippe Holland.
Attorneys Valerie Palazzo (left) and Graciela Christlieb witnessed the shooting of Philippe Holland.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

As police shootings of unarmed citizens go, Philippe Holland got lucky.

This might sound a little odd, maybe even flip. But bear with me.

Philadelphia police officers pumped 14 bullets into the car of the college student working as a deliveryman right after he dropped off an order on the night of April 22, 2014. Two went through his leg, another through his cheek. There are bullet fragments in his brain. His right eye was disfigured after a bullet entered the orbital bone and went through his jaw.

As infuriating as that is, here's where the luck comes in: If it wasn't for three lawyers who witnessed the shooting from a car just feet away — it would have been His word against Theirs—and we all know how that goes. It definitely wouldn't have ended with the largest police settlement in city history.

"The safety of the public and the discipline of officers should not depend on the fortuity of who might be the witnesses," said Thomas Kline, the attorney who represented Holland in his civil lawsuit.

Oh, but it does. And even under the best of circumstances, holding police accountable in this city is near impossible. There have been more than 430 officer-involved shootings between 2007 and 2016. But not one officer on duty during a shooting has been charged by the District Attorney's Office.

Even after cops on the scene in Holland's case dismissed the women who had been sitting in a car at Willows Avenue and 51st Street, the lawyers wouldn't let up.

The friends, who worked together as public defenders, knew how the system worked, and how it didn't. They knew how important eyewitness accounts could be, Valerie Palazzo said when we talked on Monday. The day after the shooting, they made sure someone would take their statements. Neither they nor another witness, a tattoo artist, wavered.

The cops who had been responding to a report of shots fired that night, told a different story than theirs — a story that tattoo artist Holly Danesi called BS in my colleague Mensah Dean's story, only in nicer language.

Department spokesman Capt. Sekou Kinebrew attempted to explain the discrepancies: "No disrespect to Ms. Danesi, that's her recollection of facts. The officers rendered their recollection of facts, too."

Here are the facts as I see them: Whether it's a neighborhood guy in a hoodie or three lawyers in suits, citizens who call out bad police behavior are treated with the same disdain by cops.

And even though then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey visited Holland in the hospital to apologize and the city eventually paid a record $4.4 million, citizens are consistently left in the dark about the process used to discipline officers in incidents like these.

After the shootings, Officers Mitchell Farrell and Kevin Hanvey were on desk duty, meaning they were still getting paid. By the time they were found to have violated a policy prohibiting officers from shooting at moving cars, the department had a new commissioner. Commissioner Richard Ross could have fired them. Instead, he suspended them.

For how long and under what conditions is a mystery because nothing promotes trust between the community and the police department more than a continuing lack of transparency even as they claim reforms — including the creation of the Officer-Involved Shooting Investigations Unit, which is still comprised of cops investigating cops.

What we do know is that the public is once again left wondering how the department justifies keeping officers who aren't fit to be on the force.

The short answer, of course, is an all-powerful union and an arbitration system that paralyzes police commissioners and prioritizes the jobs of shady cops over the integrity of a police department. In the case of Farrell and Hanvey, at least now citizens can see them coming. They are uniformed patrol cops in the 18th District.

The night the three lawyers sat in the car after a painting class, they lingered a little longer than usual to hash out an issue about another friend.

If they hadn't, who knows if they would have been there to witness the shooting, who knows how much worse this all could have ended?

As horrific as Holland's case was, other victims should be so lucky.

Except they almost never are.