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Abusing the Abused: Philly Police Abuse Case Typifies All-Too-Common Misconduct by US Prosecutors

Photo by G20 Voice | CC BY 2.0

Photo by G20 Voice | CC BY 2.0

Actions and inactions by Philadelphia’s District Attorneys Office that have blocked Sharif Anderson from his day-in-court for an arrest that took place over 1,200-days ago have elevated this Philadelphia police abuse victim into a prime example of what the phrase “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” means.

During recent months Philadelphia prosecutors have repeatedy presented specious requests in court that have delayed trial dates for Anderson, who endured a brutal May 27, 2013 arrest when Philadelphia police confronted him as he videoed an incident of police brutality with his cell phone.

Those requests by prosecutors for delays in the Anderson case raise issues regarding adherence of prosecutors to a provision in the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers in Pennsylvania that states it is “not proper for a lawyer to routinely fail to expedite litigation.”

The Philadelphia District Attorneys Office declined requests for comments on issues raised in the case of Sharif Anderson. “Unfortunately, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office cannot comment…because the case is still active,” stated a self-serving email reply from the DAs Office.

Disturbingly, it is not unusual for prosecutors in Philadelphia and elsewhere around America to reflexively pursue obstructionist tactics that shield police in cases that contain documented evidence of improper and/or biased actions by police.

The failures of prosecutors to prosecute police misconduct was an underlying element in reports critical of abusive policing issued by the U.S. Department of Justice after high profile examinations of law enforcers in Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio and Ferguson, Missouri — three cities that erupted in protests following incidents of abusive policing.

In Baltimore, for example, DOJ investigators faulted police for interfering with people who “lawfully record police activity.” That DOJ report also faulted Baltimore police for arresting people police deemed as being verbally “disrespectful.”

The Sharif Anderson’s arrest for lawfully recording police activity began when police proclaimed that some young men had acted “disrespectfully.”

Despite federal prosecutors documenting abusive and racially discriminatory misconduct by police in Baltimore, Cleveland and Ferguson, the DOJ failed to charge a single police officer, police supervisor or city official for the misconduct uncovered in those federal investigations.

In the Sharif Anderson case, requests for delay by local prosecutors included a profession of their need for more time to interview the Philadelphia policeman who three years ago confirmed that a fellow officer deliberately smashed Anderson’s cell phone with a baton during Anderson’s arrest.

That request for delay to conduct an interview clashes with the fact that prosecutors knew (or should have known) the importance of the notorious Code of Silence being followed by policeman they now claim they never interviewed. Testimony from that one policeman led to the conclusion in a March 2014 Philadelphia police Internal Affairs investigative report that the cell phone smashing officer “intentionally damaged…Anderson’s cell phone…”

Prosecutors have refused to dismiss three criminal charges against Anderson, which include a felony count of assault on police, despite the fact that the officer who smashed Anderson’s cell phone destroyed evidence Anderson needed to prove that his arrest was fraudulent. During that arrest, police reportedly punched, kicked and shot Anderson twice with a Taser.

Compounding violations of Anderson’s fair trial rights arising from the destruction of his cell phone is the fact that Philadelphia prosecutors have continued to prosecute Anderson despite eyewitness accounts and videoed evidence that police actally attacked Anderson as Anderson videoed that incident of police brutality.

When police confronted Anderson in May 2013, it was not an offense to video because Philadelphia’s then Police Commissioner had issued specific directives in 2011 and in 2012 telling officers that citizens had a right to video/photograph police. The officers involved in Anderson’s arrest disregarded those directives from their commander and now enjoy impunity from Philly prosecutors for their violations of police department directives.

Prosecutors have continued to press charges against Anderson even after charges of disorderly conduct against the four others arrested that day were dismissed in court on judicial findings of lack guilt.

Anderson, also charged with disorderly conduct, was the only person arrested that day and charged with assault on police. Anderson denies assaulting police during that arrest where he “sustained permanent injuries” according to a civil lawsuit against the arresting officers which filed by Anderson and three of those arrested with him.

The delays attributable to Philadelphia prosecutors in Anderson’s case seemingly contradict provisions of the Rules of Professional Conduct that apply to all lawyers in Pennsylvania including prosecutors. That ethics code warns that “dilatory practices” stain the justice system. Language in Rule 3.2 considers delay unreasonable “if done for the purpose of frustrating an opposing party’s attempt to obtain rightful redress.”

The prosecutorial delays endured by Anderson contrast sharply to the speedy disposition of charges filed against a woman romantically linked to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. In late August 2016 police lodged charges against Stacey Cummings for slashing the tires on two city-owned vehicles parked outside of Williams’ home. Statements by Cummings, reported in news accounts, indicate she was upset with Williams for reasons yet unexplained publicly.

Cummings will enter a special program that eliminates her arrest record after her successful completion of a probationary period, according to recent news reports. Anderson, in contrast, has lost employment opportunities due to his now having an unresolved arrest record for that May 2013 incident.

Philadelphia DA Williams has garnered headline news coverage due to a reported federal investigation into his personal and political finances. Weeks before the arrest of Cummings, Williams revealed that he “forgot” to file five years worth of annual financial disclosure forms that listed $160,000 in gifts that Williams received. Those gifts included a $6,500 Rolex watch and over $1,000 in clothing from Cummings.

In Philadelphia, over half of the complaints filed with the city’s civilian police review agency – the Police Advisory Commission – allege ‘Abuse of Authority.’ Such abuse is an offense category that includes unlawful arrests and discriminatory enforcement.

The police district where the 2013 arrest of Sharif Anderson occurred ranks third in police districts where police conduct generates the most civilian complaints, according to the latest data issued by the PAC.

Philly prosecutors routinely prosecute flawed arrests that produce many of the ‘Abuse of Authority’ complaints. Even when the PAC upholds Abuse complaints, prosecutors rarely press charges against police officers for offenses, even including serious issues like filing false arrest reports and fabricating evidence to buttress a flawed arrest.

The refusal of prosecutors across America to exercise their ethical duty to ensure justice by dismissal of improper arrests by police is a key component in the often-criticized conveyor belt like system that churns out flawed convictions and worse, false incarcerations.

More articles by:

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.

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