When a Philadelphia police officer fatally shot an unarmed man in East Germantown six months ago, officials said the man had fled a car stop, then rammed the Hyundai he was driving into an unmarked police car.
They said the man, Dennis Plowden Jr., had been driving a car linked to a homicide a week earlier in Kensington, and that after striking the police car's passenger door and an officer who was exiting, Plowden crashed the Hyundai into parked vehicles. He was shot when armed officers confronted him on a sidewalk and he refused orders to show his hands.
But a review of surveillance video and police radio communications from the night of Dec. 27 calls into question parts of that narrative. One eyewitness said even the officers at the scene seemed surprised that a shooting had occurred.
"What was crazy was, after the gunshot, I turned around," the witness, Rico Ranger, told the Inquirer and Daily News. "All the officers were looking at each other like they were in shock, like, 'What the hell just happened?'"
Plowden's death remains under investigation by the District Attorney's Office. The officer who shot him, Eric Ruch Jr., has been on desk duty since the shooting. It was the second time in 2017 that Ruch had shot a man while on duty. He returned to duty a month after the first episode, in which an armed suspect was injured, police said.
Ruch declined to comment, as did John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the officers' union.
How and when it is resolved could ripple beyond one case. Plowden's death was the last of 13 officer-involved shootings and the fourth fatal one in the city last year. It came as District Attorney Larry Krasner was about to take office pledging to apply the same scrutiny as a prosecutor to officers' conduct as he did while a criminal defense lawyer, when he sued law enforcement or the government more than 75 times.
Plowden's relatives say they are baffled by the assertion that the car Plowden was driving was tied to a killing. On the day after he was shot, police said it was determined that Plowden was not a person of interest in the Kensington homicide.
A civil-rights lawyer working for Plowden's widow says he is preparing to sue the officer, the department, and the city over what he says was an illegitimate police stop that ended with a needless death.
"We have an unarmed man lying on the ground who has his hand up, obviously indicating a defensive position," said the lawyer, Paul Hetznecker.
‘We have a mover’
Plowden's fatal shooting that Wednesday night unfolded in barely three minutes. It started with a police radio call at 8:35.
"Can you run a tag? We have a mover," an officer at Nedro and Ogontz Avenues radioed in to a dispatcher, according to a copy of the transmission obtained by Hetznecker and shared with the Inquirer and Daily News.
Police spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew declined to speak about the case, citing the district attorney's investigation, but said last week that, in general, "a mover" simply refers to a vehicle that is moving.
First Deputy Commissioner Myron Patterson said at a news conference on Dec. 28 that the officers sought the car in connection with the earlier homicide. But the radio transmissions that night included nothing about the homicide.
Two unmarked cars began pursuit of the white Hyundai Elantra. Ruch and his partner were in the first, traveling behind the sedan. A second car headed east on Nedro toward 16th Street. A police siren is heard. As the second car approached the intersection, it activated its rear flashing light, then began to turn right on 16th — the wrong direction on the one-way street.
As the Hyundai turned left from 16th onto Nedro, a home surveillance video on Nedro, obtained by Hetznecker, appeared to show that an officer in the front passenger seat of the second unmarked car, which was still moving, opened his door into the path of the oncoming Hyundai.
Plowden, behind the wheel of the Hyundai, drove off at high speed west on Nedro, pursued by Ruch's car with its front light flashing, and the second unmarked car and marked police cars.
The Hyundai soon crashed into parked vehicles on the 1900 block of Nedro.
Ranger, 38, who lives on that block, said he heard the crash, went outside, and saw that a neighbor's Toyota Camry and his own two SUVs — a Honda Element and a BMW X5 — had been "totaled." Meanwhile, the Hyundai had spun and landed on the other side of Nedro, on the sidewalk of Opal Street.
Plowden had climbed out of the Hyundai, was sitting on the curb on Opal, and "was definitely out of it," Ranger said.
Ranger said he heard police officers yelling, "Don't move!" "Put your hands in the air!" and "Take your hands out of your pocket!" He recalled seeing three or four plainclothes and five or six uniformed officers.
He said he was photographing his damaged SUVs when he heard a gunshot and saw the surprised faces of officers.
The bullet struck Plowden's left hand, apparently raised to his forehead, then hit him in the head.
At 8:38 p.m., an officer on the scene radioed in the call, according to the recordings: "We need a medic out here. We had a police discharge."
Plowden died the next morning at Einstein Medical Center.
‘I just really want the truth’
At the December news conference, Patterson said the officer had fired because Plowden failed to show his hands, then made "a furtive, abrupt movement." A news release that day said Plowden had "placed his hand in his jacket pocket."
An updated account said Ruch fired when Plowden "refused to remove his hand from his clothing."
No weapon was found on or near Plowden, or in the Hyundai, which was not his car. Police have declined to identify a female passenger who was in the Hyundai.
Homicide Capt. John Ryan confirmed last month that a patrol alert had been put out for the Hyundai because the shooter in the Kensington homicide had been seen leaving the crime scene in that car. No arrest has been made in that shooting, and the investigation remains open, he said.
Plowden's relatives say they don't know who owned or drove the car before Plowden and don't know the female passenger, but said Plowden was a friend of the Kensington shooting victim, Marvin Poland, 24. In fact, on the day before he was shot, Plowden had attended Poland's funeral, according to Plowden's widow, Tania Bond.
After the funeral, Plowden ended up driving the Hyundai and was planning to return it the next night after stopping at his mother's East Germantown house, Bond said.
At the time of his death, Plowden was awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and a summary offense of driving with a suspended license in January 2017. He was on probation after pleading guilty in 2016 to felony charges of possession with intent to deliver drugs three years earlier.
Still, Hetznecker said, the shooting was unjustified and the traffic stop should not have happened.
"It's not a lawful police stop, based on information gleaned a week before" in the Kensington homicide, Hetznecker said. "There's no probable cause or reasonable suspicion based on that [patrol alert], if one existed, to stop that vehicle in another district by these police officers."
Bond said the last six months have been a struggle, as she takes care of her and Plowden's son, who turned 1 last month.
"It's a lot. It's tiring. It's draining," she said. "You struggle with being sad and sometimes angry. It makes you feel like you can't trust law enforcement."
Asked whether she wanted Ruch to be charged, she said: "I just really want the truth."