It’s not a good thing to be flipping through an investigative grand jury report into the fatal police shooting of a civilian and be thinking to yourself, Wow. Is this a script to a movie about nasty high school infighting?
But that’s what a grand jury’s unsavory play-by-play sort of felt like, as it detailed how Pennsylvania State Police went at it with the Northampton County district attorney last year the day that two troopers shot and killed a man near Easton.
The ugliness began on May 20, with one of those scary and unpredictable situations that police dread.
Two troopers shot and killed a 47-year-old man, Anthony Ardo, who’d been threatening to blow himself up in Lower Mount Bethel Township. A lieutenant called District Attorney John Morganelli to see what he wanted to do. Then a higher-ranking captain got involved. He told Morganelli to buzz off; state cops would investigate the shooting by his officers instead — no ifs, ands, or buts.
Morganelli didn’t take it well: “I think it is a mistake to shut us out,” he warned the captain.
Morganelli put a grand jury on the case. State police, whom the grand jury later dubbed “arrogant,” tried to kill the grand jury probe.
In the end, troopers were cleared of wrongdoing. But the grand jury, in a Dec. 27 report, found a staggering degree of confusion among high-ranking state police over what the 4,300-member-strong department’s policy on police-involved shootings was in the first place.
One high-ranking official told the grand jury that Morganelli had the right to lead the probe. Commissioner Tyree Blocker testified that state police did.
Also, the troopers got preferential treatment from their comrades. They weren’t interviewed until 30 days later and had the chance to review video of the shooting before they were interviewed.
On any day in a democracy, this is not a good look.
But especially these days, as unsavory stories like a cringe-worthy one out of Philadelphia just last week continue to make us wonder how even well-meaning cops can apply justice equally to themselves. That story, by Chris Palmer and William Bender of the Inquirer and Daily News, revealed how a grand jury determined that a gun-waving, drunken Philly cop didn’t get so much as a Breathalyzer test after a car crash in 2016, once a superior arrived on the scene.
“Evey time a cop shoots anyone across the country, all we see is cities being burned down and protests and neighborhoods being destroyed because they don’t trust the system,” Morganelli told me. “This kind of stuff when the cops say, ‘Sorry, we don’t want anyone else in the investigation, we’re running it,’ erodes confidence.”
What mechanism is in place so that state troopers don’t have a conflict with the cop they’re investigating? Officers are expected to “self-examine themselves” for conflicts, Commissioner Blocker told the grand jury.
Police have an incredibly hard job. So much is at stake with every call. But let’s all agree that they should not investigate themselves any more than the Minnesota Vikings coach should be referee in this weekend’s matchup against the Eagles.
This is not anti-cop posturing. This is common sense.
A version of that analogy, which uses New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as hypothetical referee, is how Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan has tried, over several years, to sell the idea of changing police department policies so that outside investigators are handed police shootings.
Hogan, a Republican, testified before the grand jury led by Morganelli, a Democrat, after Hogan helped the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association research, craft, and issue best practices calling for exactly that in November 2016. He said all police departments in Chester and Montgomery Counties have adopted them.
“The argument should be ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ” Hogan said. “The right thing to do is to use an independent agency.”
The state’s two largest forces — Philly P.D. and the state police — haven’t followed suit. Lawyers for the state police submitted a six-page response to the grand jury’s findings that didn’t so much as acknowledge the confusion the grand jury found — let alone call for a change in policy. Gov. Wolf through a spokesman said only that the matter was under review.
Philadelphia’s newly elected district attorney, Larry Krasner, won on the promise of vigorous criminal justice reforms. His spokesman says Philly cops should be commended for at least having a specialized, walled-off unit to handle such shootings.
“However, it is easy to see that there could be a perception of conflict in these investigations,” spokesman Ben Waxman said.
If we’ve learned little else from the #metoo movement and its horrid tales of unchecked sexual misconduct against women, it’s that organizations do a terrible job finding and punishing their own.
The police, however, are not Harvey Weinstein. They are our public watchdog. We should demand nothing less than justice, served equally and always.