Without question, being a Philadelphia police officer is an exceedingly dangerous job. Seemingly innocuous situations, in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, can turn potentially deadly within a matter of seconds. Quite often, police are required, if not compelled, to use force to effectuate arrests and/or preserve the safety of themselves or others.
Sometimes Hot Heads Make Mistakes
Let’s face it, our police force is made up of human beings just like you and I…and like all of us, police officers can lose their temper. But when a police officer loses their temper in the line of duty, it can lead them to make mistakes and/or perceive a danger to themselves when none in fact exists. The end result in either situation may very likely result in a violent citizen-police encounter that results in injuries to the citizen as well as pretextual or “cover” charges.
The officer who intentionally or negligently causes injury to an innocent citizen has every motive in the world to trump up criminal charges against that person, and I have found that there seems to be very little resistance to this practice in the police hierarchy.
“Cover charges” can range from attempted murder or aggravated assault (where the innocent citizen is shot or otherwise seriously injured) to resisting arrest or disorderly conduct (where the person is “merely” bruised and battered). For a police department that spends money generating special reports to justify the unusually high number of police shootings, many people may not be surprised that criminal charges are often generated as a way to shield a police officer from discipline and/or civil liability.
Getting to the Truth
There are a number of methods for an experienced Philadelphia criminal defense attorney to employ that can be used to bring a judge or a jury to conclude that the actions of the police were in fact abuse as opposed to a legitimate response to wrongdoing.
- Subpoena 911 calls and police radio calls. All information broadcast over police radio and 911 are preserved by the police department. This information can be a treasure trove for the defense, as it is generally a real time account of what is occurring on the street, and can often be used to contradict what police write down in their reports in the wake of police misconduct. Even the absence of certain information can be used against the police, as one could argue that nothing was being called in because police were busy getting their stories straight. Additionally, potential witnesses can be discovered, who may have a drastically different version of events from the police.
- Document injuries to the Defendant. This can be done several ways. I have seen cases where multiple police officers have struck an individual in the face with their batons and then described the injuries as “minor bruising”, when their arrest photos show that the person is almost unrecognizable. Sometimes the picture taken at the prison are even better because police will sometimes take the arrest photo before swelling begins to appear. The photos at the prison are usually several days later. Along those same lines, medical records from a hospital and/or the prison’s medical wing can be used to establish that the injuries suffered by the defendant are out of proportion to his alleged conduct resulting in his arrest and beating.
- Obtain a history of police officer discipline and/or complaints. I am a firm believer that where there is smoke there is fire. If you are dealing with a rogue cop, chances are that officer has been involved in other similar incidents. While the district attorney will fight to keep prior instances of misconduct from ever being mentioned, there is ample legal authority to suggest that such information is relevant and admissible at trial. The key is knowing how to obtain such information in the first place. Believe it or not, the police department and the City Solicitor’s Office (who defends cops against lawsuits) aren’t to eager to share information about officers’ misdeeds. Unless an attorney knows exactly where to look for the information and how to request it, the probability of getting it is almost non-existent. Records of police misconduct could be found in approximately six different databases, and unless you specifically request information from all of them, you won’t get it! Specifically, the defense should request police personnel files, IAD officer complaint records, police board of inquiry disciplinary record information forms, concise officer history forms, and use-of-force forms. I have seen exculpatory information be overlooked by attorneys when they simply make broad requests for information.
The above methods are good starting points for the defense of pre-textual criminal charges stemming from a police brutality case, but are not exhaustive by any means. While someone who is the victim of police abuse and a recipient of criminal charges may feel powerless, this situation is not unique. An experienced criminal defense attorney will know how to exploit the prosecution’s theory of the case and expose the truth.