Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Crooked cops? -- there's an app for that

Recording police conduct would help weed out bad apples.

Crooked cops? -- there's an app for that



I think I've already used my yearly quotient of the phrase "blood boil" (and it's only April...this town!), so I'll try and shun the cliches as I describe my anger and dismay over the reading the words of John McNesby, the head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. The quick backstory: In 2009, my Daily News colleagues Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker reported on rogue narcotics officers linked to serious allegations of wrongdoing, including knocking off bodegas and corner stores (knocking out video cameras, as shown here), with one of the cops accused by three women of sexual assaults. The stories were powerful enough to win Laker and Ruderman a Pulitzer Prize, but shockingly got minimal response from local prosecutors, especially federal prosecutors who were forwarded the allegations.

Last week, it emerged that the statute of limitations had expired in many of the allegations, that criminal charges aren't happening (although thanks to the ensuing furor, the DA's office is now -- now -- looking at the sex crimes), and that for now five officers are facing just internal charges, a cop-favoring process that often ends up with the accused back on the job.

Still, even the internal charges against five of the narcotics officers are pretty serious: Lying to or misleading investigators, searching a van without a warrant, and other conduct unbecoming a police officer. The reaction from FOP head McNesby?

"These are everyday charges. It's not like the whole sky is falling...This is no big deal. They'll be handed some discipline and we'll probably win in arbitration...I don't see anyone losing their jobs."

So it's "no big deal," an "everyday" occurrence that Philadelphia police officers lie about their duty, and violate the 4th Amendment? That's outrageous, but here's the thing: I think that McNesby is (also) not speaking the truth here. Most Philadelphia police officers are good people, public servants who go into rough neighborhoods to perform a dangerous job, and I have to believe that many of them are just as mad about McNesby's comments as I am.

The issue, then, is protecting citizens from a small minority of "bad apples" on the force. But here's the thing: With the justice system seemingly turning a blind eye to police corruption, as well as Philadelphia's so-called leaders (is Mayor Nutter going to weigh in on this travesty of justice...hello? Anyone home?), it seems the public is going to have to innovate. Since last week, we've already talked about using the Internet to "crowdsource" -- share and promote our stories about corruption -- as well as using Twitter hashtags like #UntaintJustice and #MyPhillyPD to raise awareness.

Today I saw a couple of great new ideas that I want to share and help spread.

This first was in today's Daily News, where my colleague Ronnie Polaneczky had a great proposal to curb what some call the "thin blue line" of police protecting dirty colleagues: "Mandated reporting" of misconduct by fellow officers -- exactly what is now legally required of school and hospital workers, university administrators and others when it comes to certain kinds of sex abuse or child or elder abuse. Cops who see blatant misconduct, she wrote, could face a sanction such as losing their pension.

Another fantastic proposal -- again, inspired by what has already been accomplished elsewhere -- was put out there this morning by Joel Mathis over at Philadelphia Magazine. He noted that in New York City -- which was roiled during the era of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg over its stop-and-frisk program that drew fire for targeting minorities, most of whom were obeying the law -- the American Civil Liberties Union developed a stop-and-frisk smart-phone app (pictured at top) that would make it easier for citizens to record police conduct on the street.

Mathis noted that in Philadelphia (where the civil-liberties group intervened to modify a stop and frisk program) the local ACLU has been reluctant to release and promote a New York-style app, but perhaps they could reconsider after the botching of the "Tainted Justice" case. Or, as he also notes, maybe citizens here will simply work harder on our own initiative to record police activities, something that Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said that the public has a 1st Amendment right to do.

He notes that in New York they've received more than 10,000 (!) videos of police conduct -- none of these has caused the ACLU to respond with a lawsuit, but that may be the point. It's Psych 101 -- the cops will be on their best behavior when they know that they're being watched.

This is what the NY Civil Liberties Union's Jen Carnig told Mathis: “We've yet to get that Rodney King video, so to say...We know that police know they’re being watched much more. It also reminds people of their rights vis-a-vis the police.”

Those same rights are something that people definitely need to be reminded in a city where official misconduct -- not just by police but by politicians and other public servants -- is too often greeted with a shrug.

Unshrugging Philly?...maybe there's an app for that.

About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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