May 7, 2021,
By Samantha Melamed. Assisted by David Gambacorta and Dylan Purcell.
A Special report by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
When detectives walked Danielle Crawley through a maze of cubicles and filing cabinets in the Philadelphia Police Department’s Homicide Unit, her hands and clothes were still stained with her brother’s blood.
That morning, Crawley, age 19, was retrieving her things from her ex-partner’s home when her protective older brother, Eric, a SEPTA bus driver, came to check on her. Patrol officers, dispatched there on a disturbance complaint, were outside, as was Crawley’s mother. Minutes later, everything changed: One of the officers shot Eric, firing a single bullet to the chest, right in front of his mother and sister. Crawley rushed to stop the bleeding, pressing her hands onto the wound, but her brother did not survive.
In a tight cubicle in the Police Administration Building, a detective was asking about what would become the department’s narrative of the incident: that Eric, who’d been agitated over the domestic incident, had pulled his licensed handgun from its concealed holster before he was shot.
“I told her, my brother never had his gun out,” said Crawley, who a decade later still sobs thinking about the interrogation. “I kept telling her what happened. She said she was going to take my kid away. I just had my daughter. She said she’s going to throw me in jail. She said my mom is old, I’ll never see her again, and who’s going to take care of my mom?”
According to Crawley, who first made those claims in a civil lawsuit, Detective Angela Gaines kept her for hours and would not let her leave or speak to her mother. “Sit there and think about what could happen to your daughter,” she said the detective threatened. Gaines did not respond to requests for comment.
Finally, exhausted and scared, worried for her 2-month-old daughter, Crawley relented. She went with detectives into a room with a video camera, to read aloud and sign what she said was a fabricated statement, that her brother had drawn his gun first.
“She pushed me to say it,” Crawley said. “They treated me like I did it.”
The city settled with the family for $210,000 — though lawyers for the city, answering the Crawleys’ lawsuit, denied that detectives threatened the young woman, detained her against her will, fabricated statements, or covered up any misconduct.
Yet, Crawley’s claims are hardly unusual. She is one of at least 15 people over the last 30 years who have said in testimony, court filings, and complaints to police that Philadelphia homicide detectives threatened to take away their children if they did not provide a satisfactory statement. She is one of at least 62, many of them vulnerable due to youth, addiction, illiteracy, or disability, who have reported being held in isolation for hours, cut off from a parent or lawyer, in what was known around the criminal courthouse as “homicide hotel.” (At least two of those people were hospitalized, according to lawsuits, after being deprived of medications for diabetes and high blood pressure while at the unit.) And she’s among 81 who have said detectives fabricated statements or supplied false information.
Those are some of the claims revealed in a new Inquirer database that for the first time aims to compile such allegations into a single resource. It is based on court documents, public records, interviews, and other reporting. The Inquirer database includes 49 allegations of physical abuse, 64 of threats, and 28 of manipulation or destruction of evidence.
The allegations cast new light on what has been a startling wave of exonerations: 19 murder convictions tossed since 2018, most of them hinging on some alleged misconduct by homicide detectives or prosecutors.
In the last two years, Philadelphia alone accounted for one out of 10 homicide exonerations in the country, making the per capita rate here 25 times higher than the nation as a whole. Philadelphia also is second in the country, after Chicago, in exonerations of death-row inmates over the last half-century. And taxpayers here are paying a steep price: $37 million in civil rights settlements just for homicide convictions overturned in the last decade, with at least 10 more wrongful-conviction lawsuits pending.
Among the most egregious cases was that of Anthony Wright, who signed a confession to the 1991 rape and murder of his 77-year-old neighbor, Louise Talley. He later testified that statement was fabricated by detectives, and he signed it only after they handcuffed him to a stationary chair, and threatened to rip his eyes out and “skull-f—” him. Detectives denied all of that, and said Wright was in custody just 14 minutes before he voluntarily confessed. Wright was convicted, and fought for years for DNA testing of the evidence, which matched a different man. Even so, prosecutors later introduced Wright’s 1991 signed statement at a second trial in 2016. This time, Wright was acquitted. The city paid him almost $10 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
Such settlements raise questions about a unit whose case-clearance rate has plummeted. For decades, Philadelphia homicide detectives were performing the extraordinary feat of closing more than 80% of cases. That figure has lately slumped to 42%, which is 20 percentage points below the national average.
That decline coincided with an era of reform in the Police Department that some say has led to a drastic decline in allegations of coercion and mistreatment. Yet, many convictions rife with such allegations remain intact — and many of the detectives who worked on those cases remain on the job, their credibility with the court unaffected.
One homicide detective, James Pitts, has been reassigned to a desk job since at least 2019. Two others who were fired or resigned are facing criminal prosecution. One, Detective Philip Nordo, is awaiting trial on charges he repeatedly raped, groomed, and intimidated informants, causing at least six cases to be reversed, downgraded or tossed out.
Current department leaders cast the allegations, if true, as problems of the past. They say DNA, video, and cellphone evidence mean detectives no longer need to build cases on a few reluctant witnesses. They say minors are never interviewed without parental consent. And, in response to the allegations against Nordo, supervisors now monitor staff far more closely. Other recurrent complaints have been resolved, they say, by policy updates such as videotaping interrogations and making it clear to witnesses that interviews are voluntary and they can revoke their cooperation at any time.
“Now, we have to ask the person. It’s not a situation where you can basically utilize your presence to convince that individual to come down and cooperate with the investigation,” said Capt. Jason Smith, who oversees the roughly 70 detectives in Homicide. He said all investigative units saw clearance rates dip as a result, though he said he likes the directive. “We shouldn’t strong-arm individuals to gain their cooperation.”
Chief Inspector Frank Vanore said the investigations have also become more thorough and forensic evidence more extensive. He said that also affects clearances. “That bottleneck gets larger and larger. There’s so much evidence that needs to be analyzed now.”
But looking at decades of practices, lawyer Patricia Cummings, who came from Dallas in 2018 to lead the Philadelphia DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, said she believes Philadelphia’s problem of wrongful convictions may be the largest in the country. Her 12-lawyer team, the nation’s largest, has 120 cases under investigation; 1,400 more await review.
She noted that allegations against homicide detectives date back to the 1970s. “There’s not a ton that’s changed, except they got a little wiser,” she said. “I still think they employ a lot of really unreliable tactics to interview witnesses and suspects, and I think we’ve got a huge problem.”
An equally huge problem, she said, is that Pennsylvania courts — unlike the federal court system and many other states — permit prior statements to be introduced as evidence in court, even if the witness has recanted the statement or claims it’s fabricated. “That literally gave a license to a bad cop, saying we can convict somebody based on a supposed statement that they gave to the cops to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has committed a crime. We know that cops have done all sorts of things to develop statements that aren’t truthful.”
I believe Philadelphia’s problem of wrongful convictions may be the largest in the country.Patricia Cummings, head of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. They have a backlog of 1,400 cases!
'Lying now, or lying then?' Under Pennsylvania rules, many defendants are convicted based on statements that are later recanted. Critics call it a "license to bad cops" to fabricate or coerce statements. Prosecutors and detectives see it as a way to salvage witnesses who recant due to threats or fear of being labeled a snitch. Read more.
Over the years, many recantations and allegations of misconduct have been made in open court, by witnesses who testified to coercive practices they said began in the Homicide interview room and, in some cases, continued through the trial. Often, detectives have taken the stand and denied those allegations. And judges have frequently found the detectives more credible than their accusers, who sometimes had criminal records of their own.
In many instances, detectives or prosecutors suggested that witnesses “went south” not because their statements were fabricated by detectives, but because witnesses were intimidated by the defendant. Given Philadelphia’s entrenched no-snitch culture, there’s often reason to believe them.
“Most of the witnesses live in the same neighborhood as the person who committed the crime. … While they’re in the safety of the Police Department they give truthful information, but when in court facing that individual, and that individual’s family or cohorts, they become afraid and then will change their testimony,” said Carlos Vega, a longtime homicide prosecutor now running for Philadelphia district attorney who has successfully prosecuted cases with reluctant or recanting witnesses. ”That’s why we have a jury evaluate a witness’ testimony and [whether] what they said to the police or what they’re saying in court is true.”
Richard Sax, a former longtime homicide prosecutor, said he acted on the lone credible allegation of fabrication a witness brought to his attention. In that case, Sgt. Stephen Brader was fired over allegations he framed a man in a 1985 shooting.
But Sax questioned the integrity of recent exonerations, which include two convictions he obtained that he believes were beyond reproach. He sees the exonerations as part of DA Larry Krasner’s agenda to end mass incarceration. (In court filings, Krasner’s office has at times taken aim at Sax’s work, calling one of those convictions “an egregious example of police and prosecutorial misconduct.”) Likewise, Sax said, while he carefully evaluated any allegations of detectives’ misconduct from recanting witnesses, he rarely believed them.
“There’s only a couple of columns they can pick from: ‘I was forced into signing it.’ ‘I didn’t really see it.’ They can’t say ‘I lied’ because then they’re subjected to perjury or [making] false police reports,” he said.
“Word gets out as to what you’re supposed to say. It’s very easy to say, ‘Well, he threatened me,’” Sax said. So the fact that a dozen people say detectives threatened to remove their children, for instance, doesn’t raise an alarm, he said.
Teri Himebaugh — a Philadelphia defense lawyer who saw so many such allegations that she began developing her own database, called the Philadelphia Police Transparency Project, which also went online this week — said ample proof exists of a rampant and systemic problem, especially given that homicide detectives work collaboratively.
“What we’re arguing is every officer and supervisor who permits this to occur is just as complicit,” she said.
Himebaugh and a handful of other lawyers who specialize in post-conviction work have also begun presenting that pattern-and-practice argument to the court.
Many of those cases have centered on Detective James Pitts, a prolific investigator who efficiently extracted witness statements and confessions during a decade in homicide — but who, in court testimony, also has been accused of slamming people into walls, choking them, punching them in their heads, and leaving them handcuffed to a chair for hours.
Pitts has repeatedly denied any physical abuse. He suggested that defense lawyers are coordinating on allegations, viewing his name on an interview record as a “winning lottery ticket” for anyone seeking to overturn a conviction.
“What’s the evidence?” he said. “Especially if you want to talk about the racial aspect of something, since I hit Homicide, that’s the narrative: A Black man can’t conduct a conversation with somebody without being physically abusive.”
One man, Dwayne Thorpe, was exonerated in 2019 after his lawyer, Todd Mosser, brought in 10 people to testify about Pitts’ alleged abuse.
Himebaugh attempted the same path for Brandon Sawyer, who said Pitts coerced his confession to the murder of Charmaine McQuilkin when Sawyer was just 15.
But two homicide detectives, Brian Peters and Henry Glenn, and supervisor Lt. Philip Riehl testified that they had never seen Pitts hit or threaten anyone. In the Sawyer case, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott found that testimony compelling. She wrote in her opinion: “None of [Sawyer’s] witnesses presented credible evidence to support a finding that Detective Pitts engaged in a habit or routine practice of coercion or intimidation in order to secure fabricated statements.”
One witness who testified in both cases was Katherine Cardona, whose then-boyfriend Obina Onyiah alleged that Pitts and Detective Ohmarr Jenkins coerced his confession to a 2010 robbery and murder. Cardona said she was at the Homicide Unit, and described hearing thumping noises and Onyiah’s screams for help through the wall. Even with that testimony, Onyiah’s confession was deemed voluntary, and he was convicted.
He was exonerated this week, after the DA determined surveillance footage proved his innocence. For Himebaugh, his lawyer, it was a long-fought victory. Yet many other cases Himebaugh’s raised with similar allegations have languished.
“What no one wants is for these cases to see the light — because once you start to open this can of worms, there are a lot of worms,” she said.
She thinks that’s a mistake. “You have to have this level of transparency if we’re ever going to gain back any kind of trust between community and police.”
In 1977, an explosive Inquirer investigation found homicide detectives routinely used these extractive tools, among others, to wrench confessions from suspects. In one in five cases, a confession was suppressed because of such conduct, the reporters found, concluding that many detectives “have come to accept breaking the law as part of their job.”
In the wake of that report, a grand jury was impaneled. Six detectives who coerced a man’s false confession to a firebombing that killed five people would be convicted of federal civil rights violations. But then-Mayor Frank Rizzo did not announce any systemic reforms.
Michael Chitwood, a Philadelphia homicide detective who was featured in The Inquirer series — he reportedly took part in an interrogation in which a subject was stabbed in the groin and, ultimately, hospitalized — remained in Homicide through 1983. Later, he spent 14 celebrated years helming the Upper Darby Police Department.
To Chitwood, the homicide detective holds a unique post, on the front line of a lonely war on violent crime. “Except the victim’s family, no one cares about who dies or doesn’t die. It’s a sad commentary about the city we live in. I also believe, from day one, the only people that really cared were homicide detectives. And sometimes, we did things we probably should not have done.”
Back then, police didn’t have the ample data available today: cellphone records, DNA analysis. And, like now, they were facing upward of 400 murders a year, hampered by witnesses too fearful to come forward. Chitwood said detectives were not formally trained to meet that challenge. They handled cases as they saw fit.
“There was no set standard. It was just: Solve the case,” Chitwood said. “Today it’s a lot different, and you’re seeing the results of that.” Those results, he suggested, include today’s low case-clearance rates, but potentially fewer citizen complaints. “Again, if that’s what society wants, that’s what society demands, then that’s the right thing to do.”
Looking back at the same historical climate, Nilam Sanghvi, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said it’s evident that detectives felt pressured to do whatever it took to close cases, amid rising crime.
“It was like, if we get somebody arrested for this, the means kind of don’t matter,” she said. “People who did these things are training the next generation of people and mentoring them, so you have these practices that are handed down over time.”
Philadelphia’s 80%-plus clearance rates, the highest of any big city, continued well into the 1990s. Homicide’s most successful and celebrated squad was the Special Investigations Unit, which handled cold cases — cases the line squads couldn’t close. It was known as “the wacker squad,” according to news reports, for its offbeat characters, like Martin Devlin, a.k.a. “the Golden Marty,” who was known to wear loud Hawaiian shirts and, according to one reporter’s ride-along, bring a sawed-off shotgun for backup as he went out looking for suspects. In interviews and depositions, Devlin touted, among his career achievements, eliciting a confession from Walter Ogrod, accused of the murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn. Ogrod was exonerated in 2020, after 23 years of wrongful imprisonment on death row.
In 1994, at a hearing related to the prosecution of Percy St. George — after charges were dropped in a capital murder case built on a statement a key witness said was coerced — three detectives refused to testify about the investigation, invoking their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. Charges against St. George were dismissed. But some of the same detectives’ other cases, including the conviction of Anthony Wright, remained intact.
“If you want to know why the Philadelphia homicide unit was running wild for years, look at that case,” said lawyer Marc Bookman, who defended St. George on the case and now heads the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “What kind of prosecutors would let these cops stay on the force? They didn’t get censured. They didn’t get disciplined.”
Lynne Abraham, who was DA from 1991 to 2010, declined an interview request.
A higher-profile example was the prosecution of Herbert Haak and Richie Wise, both of whom signed confessions that they killed Kimberly Ernest, a 26-year-old paralegal who became known as the Center City Jogger after she was murdered on her morning run.
Haak already had a criminal history, but he never experienced anything like the hours in Homicide.
It started, he said in an interview, when a detective smacked him across the face and told him to strip naked. Haak said he was sitting in his underwear when Detective Thomas Augustine entered, holding a metal fingernail file, asking: “Why are you looking at this? You think I’m going to poke you with it?”
After that, Augustine told him to get dressed and to sign 15 blank pages, then typed out a horrifying confession, Haak said. The way he tells it, he was so fed up he began answering sarcastically — “Yeah, sure, I threw her bra in the backseat. Is that what you want me to say?” Those responses were typed into the statement. When his sarcasm grew too caustic, he alleged, Augustine began choking him until he nearly blacked out, then spit in his face.
“I just sat there and I felt so defeated,” he said.
Physical and DNA evidence contradicted the incriminating statements, which both men recanted. They were acquitted in 1997 of Ernest’s murder, an embarrassing outcome for the department and a source of anguish for Augustine.
Haak sued the city for police misconduct. It denied his claims but settled with him for $50,000.
After the Haak and Wise acquittals, Philadelphia reversed a long-standing policy against videotaping confessions. Augustine said making recordings was an improvement: Video confessions always resulted in guilty pleas. (Retired to Florida, he said he still keeps tapes of 12 murder confessions he personally took, on a shelf below his desk.)
Yet, Augustine said, Haak and Wise’s abuse allegations were obvious lies because their faces were unscathed in their mug shots — and by the fact that supervisors monitored every step of the interrogation. A federal civil rights investigation went nowhere, and Augustine was not disciplined. To this day, Augustine believes Haak and Wise were guilty, their confessions legitimate.
“I would rather be dead than to frame somebody and put them in jail just because I solved a murder. It may be hard for people to believe that detectives think that way,” he said. “Why would a guy sit down and confess to the most intimate details of a crime?”
Leon Lubiejewski, a retired longtime homicide detective, takes a different view. He said he found it hard to believe any detective would intentionally coerce a confession, but “it’s possible, if you have a weak individual, to talk to that person into confessing. It’s something detectives should be aware of.”
Saul Kassin, an expert on false confessions and a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said physically and verbally abusive interrogation practices are not only illegal, but also render any statements gathered less reliable.
“Threats elevate the level of false confessions and reduce the diagnosticity of the confession,” he said.
Each of the coercive tactics alleged in scores of Philadelphia cases has been linked by researchers to similarly untrustworthy results. For example, prolonged interrogations are a major driver of wrongful convictions, a national study found: 84% of documented false confessions occurred after at least six hours in custody. (Of those who made allegations of prolonged questioning in The Inquirer’s database, 30 said their interviews lasted at least twice that long). Back in the late ’70s, Pennsylvania courts went so far as to begin tossing out such confessions, under what became known as “the six-hour rule.” But over the years, that timeline grew increasingly elastic. In 2004, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court scrapped it altogether.
The impact of such treatment is magnified when detectives target vulnerable people, such as minors: “They have a more difficult time than adults grasping their Miranda rights,” Kassin said. “Juveniles are more compliant to authority, and they’re more suggestible.”
He analyzed Innocence Project data and found a startling number of wrongful convictions began with a false confession — which was then corroborated by more flawed evidence.
“When a confession is unleashed and it gets recanted, which means the main evidence going forward is in dispute, other errors in evidence like jailhouse informants and bad forensic science are far more likely to happen,” Kassin said. He noted the power of confirmation bias to drive poor decision-making. “By the time an Anthony Wright comes to trial, there is this appearance of a mountain of evidence — but it’s not a mountain of evidence. It’s a house of cards built on the back of a false confession.”
Reforms, lies, and videotape
Lubiejewski, who joined the Homicide Unit in 1978, did not recall any training on how to avoid false confessions, either when he first started out or in the decades that followed.
“There’s not much training for a detective,” he said. Detective school, as he recalled, was three weeks. “In my case, most of that was spent in typing. Four hours a day in law, and then four hours a day for three weeks learning how to type.”
As of 2019, according to a review the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) conducted at the department’s request, there was still no formal training specifically for homicide detectives. The think tank’s review also found that detectives’ case documentation was inadequate, and the department did “no significant supervision or formal review of homicide investigations.”
Separately, the department collaborated with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law School to conduct “event reviews” to identify what went wrong in two exonerations. The review team made numerous recommendations, including to “implement policies that will promote information gathering, rather than confessions, as the goal of both witness interviews and suspect interrogations.” The team also concluded that the video policy should be expanded further, to include all interviews with suspects or witnesses from start to finish.
Not all of those recommendations have been instituted. But the department has made moves to reform.
In 2014, then-Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey began requiring detectives to remind witnesses they were free to leave. He introduced procedures like “double-blind” photo arrays — that is, administered by an officer who does not know which photos are fillers — to improve the reliability of eyewitness identifications. He limited the time suspects could be held to 36 hours, and required a supervisor’s approval to go past 12. Most controversially, he began requiring video of homicide suspect interrogations.
At the time, Homicide Capt. James Clark lamented to a reporter that the new policies “have really handcuffed, and made it very, very difficult, for my detectives to do their jobs.”
But Smith, the current captain, said the department now embraces those reforms and is drafting new policies to comply with PERF’s 2019 recommendations. Other changes proposed by PERF, like equipping each detective with a smartphone, have been instituted, he said. He’s also begun equipping detectives with body-worn cameras to ensure interactions with suspects are recorded in their entirety.
Out of 152 hours of detective training, just four hours are dedicated to interview and interrogation practices and three hours on administering photo arrays to witnesses. Detectives do have access to professional development opportunities like the International Homicide Investigators Association symposium.
Asked what training the Philadelphia Police Department has instituted to guard against false confessions, Smith said video cameras had entirely resolved the issue. Supervisors monitor and review interrogations, and detectives are trained to seek corroborating evidence. He and Vanore said they were not familiar with research on false confessions, and did not believe false confessions were a problem.
James Trainum, a retired Washington, D.C., homicide detective who’s now a consultant, reviewing alleged wrongful convictions and developing police training, said far more — and different — training is needed. He argues police should abandon the accusatory approach to interrogations, which creates a climate in which suspects feel compelled to say what the detective wants to hear.
“Video does not stop false confessions,” said Trainum, who speaks often about how he once inadvertently took a false confession on video. It does allow for independent review, but he said that too must be more critical. “Just because you can see [the confession] doesn’t mean you understand what’s happening.”
Some defense lawyers said the improvements are noticeable, and allegations of abuse have declined.
Others still hear complaints of lengthy pre-interviews, which are not documented and are conducted outside the interview room before the camera is turned on.
Vega, the DA candidate, said if a suspect or a witness declines to be video recorded, that should not affect the validity of the statement. “Right now the state of the law is this: You have the right to refuse,” he said.
To Kassin, requiring video in all cases would be the best practice, in part because it insulates detectives from false complaints. Several years ago, he worked with a police department to conduct a controlled trial of video interviews, and found that people were just as forthcoming with the camera rolling.
Such reforms are already law in other states.
According to an Innocence Project analysis, 25 states and the federal government require start-to-finish video of suspect interrogations. And 24 states have adopted legal requirements that police must use eyewitness-identification best practices for such statements to be admissible in court.
The next frontier for reform advocates, according to Kassin, is to ban lying to suspects and witnesses. He believes this routine, legal, and generally accepted practice should be prohibited, since research shows that it can alter people’s memories or open them to manipulation.
Detectives like Augustine, though, see manipulation as just part of the process.
“What you do is you want to befriend this person,” he said — bring them coffee, a snack, a cigarette. He never threatened anyone, he said. “You beat a confession out of somebody? You might as well take that and throw it down the toilet because you’re not going to win. To me, it was like a contest. If I knew I was going to go in a room with a guy tomorrow I’d be up all night figuring out, How am I going to question him?” He’d offer the opportunity to minimize, to get ahead of the story, to tell before the other guy did.
“You con them into giving a statement. But is the con illegal? No. The courts decided you can lie.”
‘I’ve heard how they play’
The fallout of flawed cases lands particularly hard on the families of those who were killed, said Chantay Love, who with her mother runs the victim-support organization EMIR Healing Center. They started it in memory of Love’s brother, Emir Greene, who was gunned down at age 20 in 1997 in Germantown.
“When you don’t have someone who is held accountable for the loss, how do you move forward? Now when you have a clearance rate we have, where they are not able to solve cases and people are left in the community to cause more harm, that impacts the community as a whole, because you have this violence that’s still there.”
At the same time, she said, people need to be able to have faith in the convictions. “Even before, there might have been a 90% clearance rate. But if now they’re getting overturned, you didn’t have a 90% clearance rate. You had a large rate of creating destruction.”
Shannon Coleman has been struggling with that since 2015, when she learned about the DNA evidence that cleared Anthony Wright.
The victim in that case, Louise Talley, was Coleman’s great-aunt. “It was devastating in our family. She was a sweet old lady. She was a Christian. You wouldn’t think anything like that could happen to her,” Coleman said. Her family was especially terrified by the attack because Talley’s siblings lived on the same block.
As Coleman learned more about the case, she became convinced of Wright’s innocence. “It was just heartbreaking to find out that something like this could happen — and, more importantly, that this monster that did what he did to my aunt continued to walk the streets and terrorize other citizens.”
The loss of trust has ongoing consequences, according to community organizers like Kendra Van de Water, the executive director of YEAH Philly, a group that works with young people to mediate the beefs that often lead to gun violence.
“The majority of the detectives are older white men,” she said. (About two-thirds were white, and 95% male, a review of 2020 payroll records showed.) “When you’re thinking about homicides in a community and you really don’t understand that community, even if you’ve been a detective for 30 years the cultural competency plays a large role. A lot of complaints I got from families of victims lost to homicide were about how nasty and disrespectful the detectives were to them. It made them not want to go out of their way to give information.”
Often, the community knows who committed a crime. But when people do come forward with information, they often feel they are not heard. On one recent occasion, she said, she had to call a city councilmember to ensure that promised witness protection services were provided. On another, she tried to assist a man who had spent four months trying to give security camera footage that captured a 2019 West Philadelphia shooting to detectives who would not call him back. “To this day, the police still do not have that footage, and it is clear footage of the person that committed that shooting,” she said.
The man, who didn’t want his name used because he feared retaliation, said he called twice and even went in person to deliver the video, but each time was told the detective was not available. The next time his doorbell camera captured a shooting — which he described as a calculated setup that, though terrifying, did not result in injuries — he did not call the police.
“If you’re not going to come and at least check it out, then why bother?” he asked.
On the other hand, crime levels have detectives overwhelmed, said Smith, the homicide captain.
As murders spiked, he had to switch his cold-case unit over to responding to incoming cases. Then, as they rose further, he was forced to bring his fugitive squad into that rotation. The last resort, one being considered, would be to recruit detectives from other units to Homicide — though he said he’d then risk short-staffing those divisions.
To Van de Water, though, it’s a lack of confidence in the official response that enables the code of the street, and the cycle of retaliatory violence, to prevail. The way to change that, she believes, is by building relationships and respect between police and community.
Lubiejewski, the retired longtime detective, sees things differently. If the department can’t close cases, it’s because people won’t speak up.
He said a total lack of resources for witness protection makes matters worse. “The Police Department certainly won’t protect you for any length of time. They might protect you up to the hearing. It sounds cruel, but once you’re on the record they can read your testimony in.”
Hassan Bennett — who was tried for murder four times for the same case, and spent 13 years incarcerated before being acquitted — said many people he knows are simply afraid to talk to homicide cops. They know the allegations of abuse, ones that he alleged, in a civil lawsuit, can be found in his case: hours of isolation in a dark room in handcuffs, intimidation, beatings, and threats.
Recently, a friend called him after being contacted by homicide detectives who were investigating the fatal shooting of a 7-year-old child in West Philadelphia.
“She said, ‘I’m scared. I’ve heard how they play,’” Bennett said. She didn’t want to go in alone, so he agreed to go with her. First, though, he said he called the Homicide Unit and warned them she’d only stay for 30 minutes. Then, he turned on location-sharing on his phone and asked a friend to monitor it. As a final precaution, he recorded himself going into the Homicide Unit, and refused to speak to anyone while he sat outside the interview room.
He could still hear the yelling through the closed door: “You’re going to be out there marching for Black Lives Matter, and you won’t even tell us who the shooter was?” His friend came out of the room shaking.
What struck Bennett was how crisply the shouting traveled through the Homicide Unit, within earshot of detectives and supervisors, but no staff seemed to notice anything amiss.
“All these people aren’t making up stories about being verbally abused and physically abused,” he said. Yet, detectives routinely testify they’ve never seen or heard of such abuse. In Bennett’s view, that’s the real lie: “You guys heard it and you ignored it.”
Reporting: Samantha Melamed, David Gambacorta, Dylan Purcell
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