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Cops shoot deliveryman after 'tragic misunderstanding'

Philippe Holland was unarmed when plainclothes officers shot him after mistaking him for a crime suspect in West Philadelphia.

Investigators look over a suspect's car at the intersection of 51st Street and Willows Street in the Kingsessing section of Philadelphia, after police discharged their weapons wounding the driver.  For the Inquirer and Daily News/ Joseph Kaczmarek
Investigators look over a suspect's car at the intersection of 51st Street and Willows Street in the Kingsessing section of Philadelphia, after police discharged their weapons wounding the driver. For the Inquirer and Daily News/ Joseph KaczmarekRead moreJoseph Kaczmarek

NOBODY REALLY knows what happened when pizza deliveryman Philippe Holland had a run-in with a pair of plainclothes cops in West Philadelphia Tuesday night.

But what was clear yesterday in the aftermath of what the city's top cop called a "tragic misunderstanding" was that Holland, 20 - who works two jobs to support himself while attending school - shouldn't have ended up with three bullets in him, lying in a bed at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania's intensive-care unit, where sources said he is likely to lose an eye.

"I don't know if there are really any words other than I'm sorry this whole thing happened," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said yesterday afternoon after consoling Holland's mother at his hospital room, packed with relatives and friends.

"I just wanted to come by and see her," Ramsey said. "To be as understanding as they are says a lot about them as people."

A delivery call Tuesday night took Holland - known as Phil to his co-workers at Slices & More pizzeria near Upper Darby's 69th Street Terminal - to 51st Street and Willows Avenue in West Philly's Cedar Park section just before 10 p.m. It was there that Holland came across two plainclothes officers scouring the area for the source of gunshots that cops heard nearby.

Exactly what happened from there is unclear, but the officers spotted Holland and tried to stop him for investigation - without realizing he was a deliveryman who had nothing to do with the gunfire.

Holland - startled by the officers' guns and confused by their street clothes - apparently thought they were targeting him for a robbery, so he made a break for his gold Ford Taurus parked nearby, a police source said.

As Holland tried to drive away, the officers, fearing that he was trying to hit them with his car, opened fire. Holland was wounded three times, police said - in his forehead, neck and leg. He did not have a weapon.

"It's a tragic situation. They didn't know this guy was a pizza-delivery driver," said Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman. "You have him on one side, possibly thinking, 'What the hell's going on?' because it's not the safest job, being a deliveryman. . . . But then you have the police officers on the other side who have some fear. They think they're going to be struck."

The shooting, which left Holland in critical condition, went against police protocol. A Philadelphia police directive instructs: "Police officers shall not discharge their firearms at or from a moving vehicle unless deadly physical force is being used against the police officer or another person present, by means other than the moving vehicle."

An investigation is underway into exactly what went wrong in the four-minute span between when the officers responded to the sound of gunfire and when they came into contact with Holland.

For now, both officers, who are assigned to the 18th District at 55th and Pine streets, are on desk duty pending the probe's outcome, as is routine with any police-involved shooting.

A police source said the officers involved are 27 and 25 years old and have been with the department for at least a year. Ramsey confirmed that both have been on the force fewer than five years.

The officers' names are being withheld by the Daily News while the investigation is ongoing. Both began their assignments in West Philly's rough-and-tumble 18th District in October, a source said.

Veteran cops wondered yesterday why two comparatively young officers had been assigned as a plainclothes team. Ramsey said it's common for younger officers to work foot beats in plainclothes.

"These are officers who have performed well in the past, and it's often the younger officers who are most effective on the streets," Ramsey said.

The commissioner said Holland would not face any charges in the incident.

"He didn't do anything to be charged," Ramsey said, adding that the young man is expected to survive.

Holland's mother said outside his hospital room yesterday that she was too upset to talk. "I just want my son to be OK," she said.

By all accounts, her son is a hardworking young man. Roy Taylor, who lives next door to Holland and his girlfriend on a quiet block in Upper Darby, said he was shocked to hear what had happened to his neighbor, who also works as a server at an airport restaurant.

"I hope they find out exactly what happened, and hopefully this doesn't happen again," Taylor said. "This is scary. No knife, no gun . . . to draw guns and shoot, that's unheard of."

Tony Spirokostas, owner of Slices & More, hired Holland as a two-nights-a-week deliveryman a few weeks ago. Spirokostas said Holland always showed up for work early and kept to himself.

"He seemed very clean-cut. Proper. Polite," Spirokostas said. "When you see that type of person, you just wonder what happened in that situation."

He said it was the first time an employee had fallen victim to violence on the job.

"I hope he can come out of the hospital," Spirokostas said. "It's a tough pill to swallow."

- Staff writer Stephanie Farr

contributed to this report.