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One cop's Christmas wish

Brandon Ruff says he tried to surrender guns taken off the street by a friend. He ended up suing the department for brutality.

Brandon Ruff poses for a portrait outside of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, where he just finished dropping off a truckload of food donations on December 21, 2014. (Colin Kerrigan /
Brandon Ruff poses for a portrait outside of Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, where he just finished dropping off a truckload of food donations on December 21, 2014. (Colin Kerrigan / more

All Brandon Ruff wants for Christmas is his old job back.

He's a decorated Philadelphia police sergeant cited for "exemplary dedication to duty," according to police. During his career, Ruff said he's rescued a child from a burning building and had a drug dealer press a loaded weapon to his nose.

But during the last four months, Ruff has been banished to work in a police officer's purgatory. Assigned to the differential police response unit, he now takes reports by phone about barking dogs and stolen lawn furniture while he waits for Internal Affairs to clear his name. He may wait forever.

"I just want my life back," Ruff said. "I just want to serve the citizens. I loved my job."

Ruff's eight-year career crumbled in late summer when a friend approached him and asked for a favor to turn in three guns to police. That favor, Ruff said, led to his being assaulted by five fellow officers in a police precinct lobby. After the alleged assault, he filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit claiming he had been the victim of police brutality.

Ruff's quick descent into limbo began Aug. 3.

Diarra "Tatman D" Davis, a Rastafarian tattoo and mural artist, had collected three handguns from a tattoo client he had inked. A self-described peace advocate, Davis said he wanted to get the weapons off the street.

"I just wanted to make sure they didn't fall into a young child's hands," the tattoo artist said in an interview with "I could have taken them anywhere, but I took them to the person I knew would do the right thing with them. I was not looking for a reward."

Ruff met Davis after the tattoo artist was viciously beaten during a robbery. Ruff, who is keen about tattoo art, became a client. And Davis embellished the officer's arms with richly inked sleeves. Over the course of hours and hours of tattooing, Davis said Ruff became "like family."

Ruff agreed to take the guns, a 9 mm Taurus, a .38-caliber Taurus revolver and a Bryco Arms .380. There are more convenient and easy ways to dispose of the weapons than take them to a station house. But it never occurred to him to wrap the weapons in a garbage bag, throw them in the river, or pitch them into a dumpster.

"I could have - if I were a criminal," said Ruff, who at the time worked out of the 16th District in the city's Mantua section. "But that's not where my heart is at."

Instead, he said he drove the unloaded firearms directly to the police precinct closest to his home, the 35th District on North Broad Street.

He intended to drop off the firearms as a private citizen -- anonymously -- and be quickly on his way.

"I wanted to turn them in as soon as possible," Ruff said. "They didn't belong in my home or anywhere else."

It didn't go as planned.

Instead of accepting the guns without question, the officer behind the desk demanded to know who owned the firearms and where they had come from. Ruff acknowledges he did not immediately identify himself as a police officer.

"I was acting as a private citizen," Ruff said. "As a police supervisor, I didn't want my actions to be misconstrued. I didn't want the officer thinking I was giving her an order."

Ruff told the officer the three guns had come from a friend who wanted to turn them over under a "no-questions-asked" policy.

"I assumed you could still do that," Ruff said. "I thought I was doing the right thing."

But the days of no-questions-asked gun returns had ended in November 2013. The federally funded "Goods to Guns" program -- a program under the Philadelphia Safety Network that exchanged grocery gift cards for weapons -- was discontinued after the Department of Justice found its executive director, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, had misused $480,000 of federal grant money. The DOJ's report on the buyback program was not widely publicized.

A spokesman for the department, Lt. John Stanford, said Ruff assumed wrong. He should have immediately announced he was a police officer and identified himself.

"If someone hands you a gun, you have to fill out a property receipt. As a supervisor, he should know that," Stanford said. "They only time we don't ask for information is when we do the buybacks."

Until buybacks resume, a department spokeswoman said the best way for a citizen to dispose of a gun is to call 911 and ask police to retrieve the firearm.

Ruff said he had complied with the officer's demand and identified his friend, but the officer said she wanted to see his identification. Rather than immediately turning over his ID, Ruff said he asked to make a phone call. As he stepped away, a second officer grabbed him and twisted Ruff's arms behind his back. While the officer held him in custody, five officers shouted at Ruff.

Ruff blurted out a secret code that should have identified him as a police officer. He told them his police ID was in his pocket.

They didn't believe him. Ruff certainly did not look like a cookie-cutter cop: He was dressed in cargo shorts and elaborate tattoos covered each arm from shoulders to knuckles. He wore a backward baseball cap and sported a short beard.

"They thought I had the look of a criminal," Ruff said.

Two officers held Tasers against Ruff's chest. Screaming, they threatened to tase him if he moved.

Police would not release a copy of their official report, citing the ongoing investigation. But according to an account published in August in the Daily News, the report said Ruff had refused to answer questions or identify himself. Ruff, who was also carrying his own Glock 23 on his hip, tried to leave and began "cursing and yelling" at officers when they tried to stop him. One of the three guns had been reported missing in 2010 from a South Philadelphia home.

It could have been chalked up as a misunderstanding, but according to the lawsuit, the ranking officer took his Philadelphia police ID and shouted, "You are a f---ing piece of s---. You are scum, and you are a supervisor. You are a disgrace to me, this department and the 35th District. You do not belong on this job."

Ruff was held in a room for more than five hours. Ruff said the 35th District officers gave him no reason for his detention. After his release, he went to a nearby hospital where he said he was treated for two sprained wrists and other injuries. The next day, Ruff's superiors took away his service weapon and put him on desk duty in the differential police response unit.

On Aug. 25, Ruff filed the federal lawsuit alleging police brutality.

Prior to the incident, Ruff himself had been accused of unnecessary roughness. According to police records, he has had eight complaints filed against him. Among them are several citizen reports alleging rough treatment or brutality. Another, filed by his ex-girlfriend, accused him of harassment. Each of the complaints was reviewed by the department and dismissed.

Ruff also volunteered he was involved in a fatal police-involved shooting but was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In an interview last week, Ruff said he reached out to a Fraternal Order of Police attorney for help but had been rebuffed. The attorney did not return a call from requesting comment.

"John McNesby has been dodging our calls," said Ruff's attorney, Michael Pileggi, referring to the president of the FOP. McNesby, reached by last week, told a reporter that it was the first he had heard of Ruff's complaint.

The president of the Guardian Civic League, the local chapter of the National Black Police Association, said Ruff erred by not following police protocols.

"He should have known better," Rochelle Bilal said.

Stanford, the police department spokesman, said no one is allowed to just "turn in a gun like a baby" and walk out.

"I could maybe accept a mistake like this from a rookie officer," Stanford said. "But he's a supervisor. What makes this all stink is that he didn't want to provide his information.

"Makes you wonder. Why wouldn't he? He asks people for identification every day."

Five months after the incident, Ruff still has not been charged with any crime. He has not been interviewed by Internal Affairs. Other than answering phones at the Roundhouse, he has been sidelined from police work.

"I've seemingly been excommunicated," Ruff said.

Ruff's attorney acknowledged his client could have handled the situation at the 35th District with greater finesse.

"Still," Pileggi said, "the other officers' reactions seem a bit like overkill."

Though Ruff did file the lawsuit, he's said he's not doing it for the money. But he doesn't intend to drop the suit.

"What they did was wrong," he said. Along with unspecified damages, the suit seeks a judgment that the practices and policies he complained of are unconstitutional.

Ruff said he'd take a disciplinary suspension gladly if that's what it takes to get back to the street.

"I miss the job like no other," Ruff said. "I just want to go back to my normal life."

Davis, the tattoo artist, said he regrets triggering the events that led to "trials and tribulations" for Ruff.

"But it's like a war out here,"  Davis said. "I wanted the danger gone, so I went to Brother Brandon [Ruff].  He was doing the right thing. He should get his job back."

Daily News staff writer Dana DiFilippo contributed to this story.