Cops who speak up against their own should be celebrated not intimidated

Robert Pawlowski, brother of fallen Officer John Pawlowski, makes a statement outside the community Mass in February 2009.

RETIRED SEPTA Sgt. Nathaniel Bentley wasn't all that eager to talk to me about testifying in a case against another SEPTA officer and breaking the unspoken rule among some cops that they should never, ever tell on another cop.

After we talked, I understood why - and why the Philadelphia police officers who recently called out another officer who went on a racist tirade might be worried, now that the internal documents about the case were leaked.

The latest episode of Philly Police Officers Behaving Badly could have been just another re-run:

Officer [insert new name] brings shame to his uniform and mistrust to the department by [insert increasingly obscene behavior].

Except for an interesting twist.

According to a story by Philadelphia Magazine's David Gambacorta, Cpl. Robert Pawlowski was off duty and hanging out at a lounge inside the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5's Northeast Philly headquarters in December when he called a black supervisor a "banana-eating monkey" and a black officer a "n-----."

I'd say someone should have cut Pawlowski off, but apparently he wasn't drunk - and even if he was, booze doesn't make you a racist. It just amplifies whatever disgusting -ism already lives inside you.

Plus, here's where things got interesting: The white officer who Pawlowski said shouldn't trust his black partner because "he is one of them" told Pawlowski he trusted his black partner with his life. (Yes, we love this cop.) And the white officers who were on the receiving end of Pawlowski's racist rant reported the interaction to Internal Affairs.

Score one for the good guys, the real ones - cops who aren't afraid to hold their sorry colleagues accountable.

Except something happened next that I fear might affect these cops' getting the credit and respect they deserve, or, worse, keep other cops from following their lead.

The internal paperwork about the allegations, which included the names of cops who cooperated with Internal Affairs, ended up on a website, and copies of it were shoved under windshields of cars inside two police district parking lots.

I'd say it wasn't a big deal - we should identify officers courageous enough to call out their own - especially when the department's go-to reaction is to keep these embarrassing episodes from the public.

But I worry that it will lead to the good guys being shunned, or worse, from cops who either think like Pawlowski or believe that a cop's first loyalty is to other cops.

I really hope not, because, as I've said on numerous occasions, one of the most powerful ways to truly change the culture inside police departments is from within. And as a very wise friend pointed out, whether they realized it or not, these cops were speaking up for black and Hispanic citizens across the city who have complained for years about bias and discrimination from officers.

Boiled down, cops who speak up against bad cops should be celebrated - not intimated.

It's why I've been so eager to share the story of retired SEPTA Sgt. Bentley's story. In March, he testified at a trial against a fellow SEPTA officer who was accused of roughing up and falsely arresting a nurse after a Christmas 2013 argument in a Suburban Station doughnut shop.

I have no proof, but I think the testimony from a fellow officer went a long way to persuading a jury to convict.

The first time I reached out to Bentley, he told me he had dug deep before testifying, and when we later talked more, I understood why.

Even before Bentley testified, other cops tried to subtly dissuade him. He was retired; did he really have to testify? It wasn't threatening, he said. It was more of a message of expected camaraderie.

"It's the support for the blue. They think I betrayed that."

Bentley's years in Internal Affairs has made the cold shoulder from some cops easier. So did the support of his supervisors, who were in court every day. Bentley was recently awarded the prestigious Transit Police Excellence in Leadership commendation.

"Sgt. Bentley displayed the character and integrity that citizens hope every police officer possesses," said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III.

Bentley was grateful, but said testifying was the right thing to do.

"I wasn't going to lie for anyone," he said.

Bentley said he was disturbed by the commotion he came across on Christmas 2013. A woman on the floor in handcuffs said Officer Douglas Ioven had cut her in line at the doughnut shop and stepped on her foot. When he saw her trying to file a complaint against him, she said, he cursed at her and chased her back into the concourse, where he banged her forehead into an ATM and cuffed her.

Bentley said he was even more disturbed when Ioven later told him, "I think I screwed up, because I thought she was a homeless person but she was a regular person."

"What flashed in my mind was, that could have been my mother, that could have been my aunt, that could have been my grandmother, and I just could not believe it."

It wasn't the kind of policing he had been taught as an officer in Chester for eight years and as a SEPTA officer for 34 years, and it certainly wasn't the kind of policing he could support - no matter the consequences.

"Our job is to serve the public," Bentley said. "We're not here to harass the public, to beat the public, to misjudge the public, or to have judgmental views against someone on first appearance. That's not our job. We serve the public, simple as that."

Sgt. Bentley and every officer who doesn't lose sight of that deserve our respect, especially when it means calling out one of their own.

215-854-5943 @NotesFromHel