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Police penalties: Speedy sanctions defy past practice

In 1977, Philadelphia police pounded unarmed motorist William Cradle so hard that their nightsticks snapped. Frank L. Rizzo, then the mayor, remarked: "It's very easy to break some of those nightsticks nowadays."

Thomas Jones' beating is videotaped from a news copter. The 2000 arrest took more than two years to resolve.
Thomas Jones' beating is videotaped from a news copter. The 2000 arrest took more than two years to resolve.Read moreWPVI-TV

In 1977, Philadelphia police pounded unarmed motorist William Cradle so hard that their nightsticks snapped.

Frank L. Rizzo, then the mayor, remarked: "It's very easy to break some of those nightsticks nowadays."

In 2000, nearly a quarter-century later, a group of Philadelphia police swarmed over carjacking suspect Thomas Jones, hitting him at least 59 times.

It took police brass more than two years to penalize the officers. The most serious sanctions: 15-day suspensions.

Given this history, the swift and harsh punishments of eight officers Monday by Philadelphia's new police commissioner look even more unusual.

What is less clear is whether the discipline will stick. In a system that has angered a succession of police commissioners, arbitrators have for decades routinely put fired police back on the force or rolled back the length of suspensions.

Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey fired four police officers and sanctioned four others after the ugly May 5 episode, in which police yanked three shooting suspects from a car and thrashed them.

David Kairys, a Temple University law professor and veteran civil-rights lawyer, said the message to the rank and file was blunt:

"If you use excessive force where it's not justified, you're going to be disciplined, and if it's bad enough, you're going to be fired."

As in the Jones case eight years earlier, the arrest was taped from a news helicopter and broadcast worldwide, generating far more global attention than the May 3 murder of Police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski.

In the age of hovering news copters, YouTube, public surveillance videos, and cell-phone cameras, commanders are under more pressure to act decisively about police misconduct.

"I train my people that cameras are everywhere and that every nose you pick is being videotaped," said Ken Cooper, a firearms instructor and expert in police use of force who is head of security at Bard College in New York state.

David Rudovsky, another veteran Philadelphia civil-rights lawyer, said the news footage certainly drove Ramsey's decision.

"It appears to be a combination of events with this incident," Rudovsky said, referring to Ramsey's quick action. "There's the fact that the incident was captured by video, and there's a new administration that wants to make clear that plainly excessive violence will not be tolerated."

The speedy discipline also was an abrupt change for a Police Department saddled with an internal disciplinary process long blasted as slow, timid and arbitrary, and marred by favoritism and inept investigations.

In a scathing 2003 report, the department's integrity officer found that excessive and unexplained delays in resolving disciplinary actions were common.

"High-ranking department officials allow disciplinary actions to languish, sometimes for years, without resolution," Ellen Green-Ceisler wrote.

She added: "When the leadership fails to swiftly and meaningfully sanction identified misconduct and corruption, it sends a clear message that such behavior is acceptable."

Her report was not greeted warmly. Ramsey's predecessor, Sylvester M. Johnson, called it "disgraceful."

The city later abolished Green-Ceisler's post. She is now a city judge.

Even when Internal Affairs investigators do their job well and the brass imposes tough penalties, the disciplined police may well shake their punishment in the end.

Lawrence Sherman, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, predicted that arbitration would reinstate the officers Ramsey fired. The system is largely tilted to protect employees from unjust dismissals, he said.

"There's a culture of due process that tends to result in the police commissioner being unable to exercise independent judgment as to what police conduct is acceptable," Sherman said.

Pennsylvania law requires arbitration for cases involving police. Arbitrators must be approved by the Police Department, the accused officer, and his or her union representatives. As a result, city officials complain, the only arbitrators selected tend to favor police.

The protections seem much more strict in Philadelphia than in other cities Sherman has studied. It's much easier to discipline an officer in New York, Houston and other cities, he said.

In February, an arbitrator reinstated a Philadelphia police inspector whom Internal Affairs had accused of stalking and harassing a former lover. The city called more than two dozen witnesses during a review that consumed eight hearings and six months.

The same scenario played out in the Thomas Jones case.

Fourteen months passed before a Philadelphia grand jury voted not to charge any of the officers who were videotaped beating and kicking Jones, whom police had shot.

The jury, in fact, found that the officers would have been justified in using deadly force to apprehend Jones.

Another 14 months after that, Commissioner Johnson announced disciplinary action: four received 15-day suspensions, seven got 10-day suspensions, and two were suspended for five days.

When the officers appealed, arbitrators overturned all the discipline.

Phila. Police Beatings

Key cases in which Philadelphia police were accused of beating citizens:

1977: Police allegedly beat William Cradle after stopping him for running a stop sign in Society Hill. The incident, witnessed by more than 20 people, prompted a federal probe of excessive force in Philadelphia. Three officers were acquitted of charges that they violated Cradle's civil rights. The case led to a 1979 lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department, which accused the city of allowing police to violate citizens' rights through a pattern of physical abuse.

1978: During the raid on a MOVE house in Powelton Village - an officer was killed in the raid - police were filmed arresting MOVE member Delbert Africa and then beating him. Three officers were charged with assaulting Africa, but in 1981 a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge ordered a jury to acquit them.

2000: A news helicopter videotaped the beating of Thomas Jones after he crashed a carjacked vehicle, stole a police squad car, and fled. Fourteen months later, a Philadelphia grand jury voted not to press criminal charges against the officers. In 2002 Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson disciplined 13 officers in the case. All disciplinary actions were reversed in arbitration.

May 5: A Fox29 news helicopter shot a video of officers beating three men who allegedly fled a Feltonville shoot-out that wounded bystanders. Two weeks later Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey fired four officers, suspended three for up to 15 days, and demoted a sergeant. District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said she would likely refer the case to a grand jury for possible criminal charges.