A July 2013 Philadelphia police attack on Sharif Anderson, where officers beat, kicked and shot Anderson twice with a Taser, is more than just another ugly incident of abuse by a big city police force long assailed for its persistent brutality and corruption.
That police assault on Anderson provides a chilling case study of so much that is wrong within the criminal justice system in Philadelphia and too many places across America. This ‘wrong’ extends from police officers to police commanders through prosecutors.
“I was in disbelief,” Sharif Anderson said about the police attack that occurred when officers rushed him while he was using his smart phone to video other police roughing-up some of his colleagues.
Incredibly, the ‘crime’ of videoing police that triggered the attack on and arrest of Anderson is not really a crime in Philadelphia (or anywhere else in the US for that matter). Even going beyond recent court decisions on the issue, the city’s police commissioner had issued directives in 2011 and in 2012 telling his officers that citizens had a right to video police – directives apparently disregarded by the officers involved in Anderson’s arrest.
Given the fact that the police commissioner had barred arrests of citizens for photographing and/or videoing police, some legal observers contend Philadelphia prosecutors should have rejected the police arrests of Anderson and four others from that 2013 incident because those arrests arose from violations of the commissioner’s directives. But prosecutors accepted police claims that “disorderly conduct,” not videoing, had precipitated the arrest of Anderson.
“I was assaulted and they charge me with assault,” Anderson recounted. “A cop claimed I bruised his hand in the midst of him pummeling me.”
The police assault on Anderson left him with “permanent injuries as a result of excessive force including striking and electrocuting,” stated the lawsuit Anderson filed recently against the Philadelphia Police Department. That assault, the lawsuit continued, has caused Anderson to incur “substantial legal fees” required to retain a lawyer to fight the criminal charges filed following his arrest.
Anderson said that 2013 arrest has impacted his life in other ways. “I tried to get another job but was denied due to this arrest.”
The arrest and the [alleged] assault on Anderson evidences the daily, street-level abuses that ignite tensions between citizens and police in non-white communities. Encounters where police curse at, falsely accuse, harass and improperly search law-abiding citizens far outnumber encounters involving brutality and fatal shootings.
Anderson faces a trial this week on charges of assaulting police, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Authorities have already dismissed charges police lodged against three of the four men arrested along with Anderson. The fourth man police arrested during that incident has been acquitted of all charges.
“Police claimed I was instigating a crowd by shouting. But I was the last to be arrested. That doesn’t make sense,” Anderson said about his early evening arrest on Wednesday, July 3, 2013.
That police encounter with Anderson embodied practices criticized by judges, rights monitors and activists dating back decades.
In 1973, for example, a federal judge in Philadelphia faulted Philadelphia police for filing “charges of resisting arrest when the arrest was unlawful in the first place.”
That judge, ruling in a case involving abuse complaints against the Philadelphia Police Department dating from the late 1960s, stated that too many police in Philadelphia “habitually violate legal and constitutional rights” of blacks. The judge stated that blacks and persons who “challenged” their initial police contact were the most likely “targets of police abuse.”
In 1998, a report on Philadelphia police abuses by Human Rights Watch stated investigations by the PPD Internal Affairs Division have “often protected officers who committed human rights violations by failing to properly handle abuse complaints.”
An IAD report found that Anderson was not “physically abused” by any of the four officers that arrested him. That IAD conclusion contradicted accounts of eyewitnesses who said police beat Anderson when he was videoing police. Those eyewitnesses included the four colleagues arrested with Anderson.
Police told IAD investigators that Anderson had to be subdued with “justified” strikes because he struggled and resisted arrest, where he kicked officers. Police acknowledged using batons and a Taser in their arrest of Anderson.
“All officers denied kicking Mr. Anderson at any time. With the exception of P/O Torres, all officers denied punching Mr. Anderson at anytime,” the IAD report stated.
The IAD report did sustain Anderson’s charge that one officer smashed his smart phone after his arrest. Arresting officers denied seeing a policeman deliberately smash Anderson’s cell phone. But, according to the IAD report, one policeman did confirm that a fellow officer “intentionally damaged” Anderson’s smart phone.
That IAD report rejected Anderson’s claim that his arrest resulted from his videoing police. IAD investigators credited the claims of arresting officers that they arrested Anderson only because of his disorderly conduct. The police destruction of Anderson’s cell phone, his lawsuit states, deprived him of evidence “which may have been used in his defense.”
While police and eyewitnesses presented different accounts, there is general agreement that the incident started when two officers told a group of young men to move a bicycle from a sidewalk.
Eyewitnesses said one of those two officers ordered the men to move the “fu*king bike” – which eyewitnesses said was not blocking the sidewalk. Police, however, claimed that when they politely asked for the removal of that bike, members of that group started yelling obscenities at those two officers and taunted them. The two officers left the scene, but returned with other officers to make arrests. The owner of the bike had already moved it before the police returned.
Verbal abuse – where police use foul language without provocation – is one of the highest categories of complaints filed with Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, the citizen review entity. An advisory commission report released earlier this year listed the police district where the assault on Anderson occurred as registering the highest number of citizen complaints for verbal abuse and physical abuse from 2008 through 2013.
During an arrest frenzy when police returned in that incident, officers’ claimed Sharif Anderson continued, “acting disorderly.” In fact, Anderson was standing on the porch of a house away from the sidewalk where police were. Officers, according to the IAD report, told Anderson “to stop recording, but he did not stop.”
Lawyers for Anderson have a video showing him videoing police and not interfering with the their arrest operation at a time when police apparently falsely claimed Anderson was arousing a crowd against them.
The lawsuit against the Police Department filed by Anderson and his arrested colleagues states that police “had no reason to approach Plaintiffs standing on private property and acting in a lawful manner.” The arrests “constituted false imprisonment.“ That lawsuit filed last month termed the arrests “outrageous.”
The City of Philadelphia is now battling a number of similar civil lawsuits filed by persons charging wrongful arrest for photographing or videoing police.
Every year the financially strapped City of Philadelphia expends significant resources on lawsuits against the police. Those lawsuits for a range of police misconduct from verbal abuse to physical brutality often result in cash settlements that are not deducted from the budget of a Police Department that notoriously does not adequately control errant officers. Ironically, citizens subjected to misconduct and poor behavior by police end up having to the finance that abuse through their tax dollars.
That 1998 Human Rights Watch report noted that the City of Philadelphia had “paid enormous sums in settlements and awards to victims of police misconduct and many minority communities are distrustful of police officers who too often act like criminals.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covered the May 13, 1985, clash. He has reported on police brutality since 1975. Washington is a journalism professor at Temple University. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press).