Saturday, November 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Lawsuits against allegedly dirty narcs could mean millions in city payouts

Bottom, from left: Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser. Middle, from left: Thomas Liciardello and Jeffrey Walker. Top: Brian Reynolds. (City Hall photo: CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)
Bottom, from left: Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser. Middle, from left: Thomas Liciardello and Jeffrey Walker. Top: Brian Reynolds. (City Hall photo: CLEM MURRAY/Staff Photographer)

Seven Philadelphia police narcotics officers at the center of a federal corruption probe are also named in scores of civil lawsuits that add more claims of thievery, intimidation and brutality to those described in their criminal indictments, according to court records.

The potential financial impact of these suits, along with any others that may be filed, could expose the City of Philadelphia to millions of dollars in damages or settlements.

Officers Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, Michael Spicer, Linwood Norman and Perry Betts allegedly formed an out-of-control band of rogue officers who conducted illegal stops and searches as pretext to rob people, particularly those they believed to be drug dealers, according to the indictment filed last month. Jeffrey Walker, who is named in the indictment but charged separately, has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his role.

Those same officers are the subjects of at least 81 pending federal lawsuits filed between November 2011 and this month, according to a search of court records. At least 78 of the suits also name the City of Philadelphia as a defendant, claiming the police department’s alleged failure to properly train, supervise or discipline officers fostered a culture of indifference to constitutional rights.

The plaintiffs’ claims paint a picture of gonzo policing in which the narc squad ran wild across Philadelphia. Among the allegations:

- One suit claims that, in October 2011, Liciardello and Reynolds assaulted a man, locked him in the trunk of their car, and drove around while periodically stopping to ask him if he was ready to “give up his people.” The officers, after stopping for a cheesesteak with the man still in their trunk, then went to his mother’s house, where they planted drugs inside a scooter parked out front and charged the plaintiff, the suit claims. [PDF]

- In another, a 25-year-old woman with no prior criminal history claims she was attending Temple University in November 2012 when Liciardello, Betts, Spicer, Speiser and Reynolds burst into her home in plainclothes with their guns drawn. She claims she thought she was being robbed and tried to flee but that the officers arrested her and fabricated drug delivery charges. She was jailed on $500,000 bail until the charges were withdrawn 10 days later. [PDF]

- A third suit claims Liciardello, Betts, Spicer, Speiser and Reynolds subjected a juvenile to a humiliating strip search in front of his family while executing a search warrant based on a falsified affidavit of probable cause in December 2011. [PDF]

“I think one of the things that has been shocking about these cases is the audacity with which these police officers acted, and with ruthless disregard of the consequences to people who are actually innocent,” said attorney Michael C. Schwartz, of James, Schwartz and Associates in Center City. He and partner Jonathan James are representing 14 plaintiffs. “Obviously some of the people who are involved in the drug trade, that’s who these guys targeted. But in the process of trying to target those people, they ran roughshod over the rights of the people they were mistaken about.”

'You can't teach corruption'

One of Schwartz's clients, 30-year-old Jamie Grilli, was arrested Jan. 6, 2011, after paperwork prepared by Spicer, Liciardello, Reynolds and Betts stated painkillers were found in her purse.

Grilli claims Spicer actually arrested her as retaliation against her boyfriend, who was being detained on suspicion of drug activity. The boyfriend refused to provide Spicer with information about his alleged supplier.

“The pattern is that they were trying to move up the ladder, or at least identify somebody else to go after, and if you refused to cooperate, then you found yourself charged,” Schwartz said.

In the lawsuit filed on Grilli’s behalf, Schwartz refers to a so-called “Code of Silence,” defined as “the refusal of police officers to report or provide information concerning the misconduct of other police officers.”

The “code” has been fostered by the city’s failure to properly sanction officers who conceal or aid constitutional violations by other officers, creating a cycle in which such abuses are encouraged, the suit claims.

The suit further claims the Philadelphia police Internal Affairs Division disciplinary system is “incident based rather than progressive,” making it difficult to detect so-called “problem officers.”

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, in an interview with Philly.com, said his department worked “very aggressively” with the FBI to amass enough proof to bring charges against the alleged rogue narcotics squad.

“Certainly, this behavior is not condoned in any way, shape or form by me or anyone that is a decent, hardworking member of this department,” he said. “Unfortunately, we do have some members that have engaged in this kind of conduct.”

John McNesby, president of Philadelphia police officers’ union Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, also dismissed claims that the type of behavior ascribed to the accused officers is widespread within the department.

“You can’t teach corruption,” he said. “Sometimes it happens and it’s unfortunate. But the fact of the matter is, we have a lot of good cops in narcotics doing a great job. The allegations – which these are, allegations – against these officers may seem very extreme, but when you dig into the cases, it doesn’t look like there’s much depth there.”

The City Solicitor's office, which is representing the city and some of the officers in the rising stack of suits, would not comment on pending litigation, city spokesman Mark McDonald said. Attorneys Jeffrey M. Kolansky and Jeffrey M. Scott, who are also representing some of the officers in the lawsuits, could not be reached for comment.

When did leaders know of mounting allegations?

While Ramsey cited a two-year investigation into the officers’ activities leading up to their arrests, it’s that due diligence that could eventually aid plaintiffs’ cases against the city, according to attorney Lloyd Long III. He and partner Lawrence Krasner are handling 16 lawsuits.

“When you make a claim against a municipal entity in a civil rights case, what you’re looking to prove is that the municipal entity’s failure to do anything about a problem of which they were aware was what caused the plaintiff’s injury,” Long III said.

Ramsey disputed the claim that the police department did nothing to prevent or stop illegal behavior by some of its officers.

“The lawsuits are filed. I respect that,” he said. “We’ll address them before the courts or wherever is appropriate and that’s it. But to make an allegation that we’re doing absolutely nothing and we allow it to happen is just not accurate and just not right.”

The lawsuits began to steadily snowball shortly after the arrest of 45-year-old guitarist Debra O’Mara, who claims five plainclothes officers forced their way into her Passyunk Square home without a warrant the evening of Sept. 26, 2012.

Though the officers claimed they were looking for guns, they began asking about the prices of guitars hanging on O’Mara’s wall and “were particularly interested in knowing which guitars were the most expensive,” according to O’Mara’s lawsuit against Liciardello, Speiser, Reynolds, Betts and the city. Six other officers and a sergeant were also named. [PDF]

They allegedly ransacked the home, stopping only when two Internal Affairs officers arrived. The Internal Affairs investigators then led each of the plainclothes officers out with their hands behind their backs, placed them in different cars and questioned them, according to the lawsuit. It is unclear why the Internal Affairs officers responded to the scene.

O’Mara claims she later found money stuffed in her couch and several caches of cash and jewelry hidden around her home, items she believes the plainclothes officers left behind “in an attempt to conceal evidence of thefts” and to evade detection by Internal Affairs, the lawsuit states.

O’Mara, who admits in the suit she had methamphetamine at the time of the incident, was charged with drug possession and delivery offenses.

But, she claims, the police paperwork documenting the incident was riddled with falsehoods, including that she voluntarily let the officers into her home and that they recovered manufacturing paraphernalia.

Multiple attempts to reach O’Mara for comment were unsuccessful and her attorneys declined to comment on the lawsuit. It is unclear what O’Mara did with the cash and jewelry the cops allegedly left behind.

The District Attorney’s Office withdrew the charges against her on March 13, 2013.

Attorney: Expect more lawsuits

Claims against the individual officers named in the civil lawsuits will likely remain on hold while the criminal cases against them wind their way through the system.

But U.S. District Court Judge Paul Diamond on Aug. 14 issued an order allowing attorneys to move forward with some discovery in the claims against the city. [PDF]

“It allows us to review certain documents that the city had in its possession concerning allegations of wrongdoing against these officers and what the city did in response to that,” Long III said.

The city has already paid at least $777,500 since 1999 to settle 15 lawsuits involving Betts, Reynolds, Spicer, Liciardello and Speiser, according to a 2012 Daily News report. On a broader scale, the city paid out $14 million last year in connection with lawsuits against the police. That marks a large increase over $8 million in 2012 and $4 million in 2008. Attorneys blamed the police department’s track record for disciplining troublesome cops.

At least one of the most recently filed lawsuits is asking for $1 million in damages, though many others specify only that they’re seeking more than $150,000.

Schwartz said the volume of suits is likely to grow, considering some potential plaintiffs’ criminal convictions — based in part on the officers’ testimony — are still in the appeal process.

He and other attorneys declined to estimate how much the city could be on the hook for if the lawsuits are resolved in the plaintiffs’ favor.

“I will say that it will be significant,” Schwartz said.

Alex Wigglesworth Philly.com
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