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Earlier complaint against 2 officers

A 2009 incident is similar to last month's allegation of harassment.

Emil Van Otoo, right, and his attorney James Famiglio, left, talk about Otoo's 2009 arrest. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Emil Van Otoo, right, and his attorney James Famiglio, left, talk about Otoo's 2009 arrest. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

One mild summer evening, Emil Van-Otoo was standing on the front porch of his uncle's house in West Philadelphia, waiting for the man to answer the door, when a police cruiser pulled up.

The two patrol officers were conducting a routine traffic stop, their target a 24-year-old male neighbor who had apparently blown past a stop sign. But over the next few minutes, Van-Otoo would become their primary focus, going from bystander to central player in what he contends was an act of police brutality.

As with other cases of alleged police misconduct, this one has two disparate accounts. Van-Otoo's case, however, is significant because the two officers involved in his arrest July 29, 2009, are under investigation by Internal Affairs for a similar encounter that occurred last month.

The police officers, Jimmy Leocal and Donyul Williams, were involved in the violent arrest Sept. 3 of another West Philadelphia man, Askia Sabur, which was videotaped by a witness and posted on YouTube.

The two arrests bear striking similarities: Van-Otoo, 26, who works as a kindergarten teacher's assistant at a Philadelphia charter school, and Sabur, 29, known in his neighborhood for his drawings and clothes designs, both allege that things went wrong when they did not heed a warning from police officers to move along. Both say they were harassed unnecessarily, ordered to provide identification, and then beaten.

Sabur's claims are still under police investigation. Van-Otoo's complaint was investigated by Internal Affairs and dismissed as unfounded. He has since filed a claim with the city.

Both officers serve in the 19th District, which is bordered by City Avenue, Cobbs Creek Parkway, and Market Street and is considered one of the city's high-crime areas.

The Inquirer reported last month that Leocal and Williams have been the subject of multiple civilian complaints over the last five years, many like Van-Otoo alleging physical abuse. Leocal, a 10-year veteran, has had five complaints filed against him, one by his wife, all alleging physical abuse. Williams, on the force for almost eight years, has had seven complaints filed against him. Four of them were claims of physical abuse. In all of the complaints, Internal Affairs investigators found no wrongdoing.

Neither officer responded to detailed and repeated requests for comment.

In an interview at his attorney's office, Van-Otoo said his claim filed in June alleges that he was falsely arrested and that the two officers used excessive force. His attorney, Stuart Carpey, called the arrest a blatant violation of Van-Otoo's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"What happened to him was uncalled for, as far as we're concerned," Carpey said, "and we're going to protect his rights."

According to the Internal Affairs report, Williams and Leocal denied striking Van-Otoo. Williams told investigators that Van-Otoo had interfered with the traffic stop, yelling things like: "Y'all always around here messing with people." Other neighbors sitting outside joined in the heckling, Williams said in the report, causing him to fear for his safety.

At some point, the officers confronted Van-Otoo about his behavior, ran his driver's license, and again requested that he leave the area. Van-Otoo refused, according to the account provided by Williams, saying: "I ain't going nowhere." The officers eventually handcuffed Van-Otoo and placed him in the patrol car.

Williams told investigators that, when the crowd swelled and some onlookers began yelling at him and his partner, he pulled out his baton. According to the report, Williams struck the baton on the ground, waved it, and ordered the crowd to back away.

Carpey, Van-Otoo's attorney, played a blurry, noisy video that he said was captured by a neighbor on his cell phone after Van-Otoo was placed in the patrol car. He said he has submitted the video with Van-Otto's claim against the city.

In the 2-minute, 40-second video, an officer, on several occasions, exits a patrol car parked in the middle of the street and engages with a group of residents from a porch.

In one exchange, a woman yells at someone: "Call the police."

"I am the police," the officer shouts back.

Near the end of the video, both officers exit the patrol car and open its back doors. Van-Otoo says it was then that the officers struck him with their batons. According to the Internal Affairs report, three residents said they heard Van-Otoo screaming.

"There's no reason for them to have opened those doors," Carpey said.

Van-Otoo grew up less than a quarter mile from where he was arrested. His mother, a nurse, emigrated from Ghana and raised him and his three siblings, he said, with the mantra: "Forward forever, backward never." His father, Van-Otoo said, lives in Sierra Leone, where he has visited a few times.

Van-Otoo graduated from Widener University in 2006, according to the registrar's office, with a degree in government and politics. He worked at a bank in customer service, but he left the job for teaching. He now takes courses online at the University of Phoenix toward a master's degree in secondary education. He is engaged, with two daughters, and has no criminal record. For the last three years, he has lived in a suburb outside the city.

The day Van-Otoo was arrested, he was visiting his uncle to talk about home-remodeling. The uncle rehabs houses, and Van-Otoo owns two properties in West Philadelphia that he hopes to fix up and rent.

"These police officers don't know anything about me," Van-Otoo said. "They think I'm just a drug dealer from the hood. Maybe if I was in a suit that day, they would have treated me differently, but I can't wear a suit forever."

The Internal Affairs report, which erroneously lists Van-Otoo's age as 16 the day he was arrested, also says officers found marijuana in Van-Otoo's cargo shorts, resulting in a charge of drug possession. Van-Otoo denies that the drug was his and says the officers showed it to him after they ordered him to take off his clothes and left him in a cell, alone and in his boxers.

The officers also said Van-Otoo had $3,400 on him. Van-Otoo said it was actually $4,400, alleging theft. He had the money to buy a used car, a gold Pontiac, because his car had recently broken down.

An Internal Affairs investigator found that there was not enough evidence to support any of Van-Otoo's claims and that he had been inconsistent in some of his statements.

To date, Van-Otoo says none of his money has been returned. When he later went to court on the drug-possession charge, he said, an assistant district attorney told him that the case had been withdrawn and that his record would be expunged.

There is no record of an Emil Van-Otoo in the Philadelphia Municipal Court, and the disposition of his case remains a mystery.

"He's not showing up in our records," said district attorney spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson. "If he was charged with something, and he had a court date, it would have come up."

However, the city's court administrator, David Lawrence, said a record for Van-Otoo did show up in his files. "The only thing I can legally say is there is no longer a record of his arrest," Lawrence said.

Van-Otoo's civil rights claim against the city is pending. He says that, if the city does not respond soon, he will file a lawsuit.

"I just feel like, if I don't do anything, what would stop them from doing it to me again?" Van-Otoo said of the officers involved in his arrest. "If there's a drug dealer, fine, get him off the street. If there's a murderer loose, fine, get him off the street. But your job is not to say everybody is a criminal. Your job is to protect people like me."