City paid, but police who shot wrong man got off easy

Police officers in an unrelated encounter make a motorist stop in West Philadelphia.

The case of two officers who were temporarily placed on administrative leave with pay after shooting the wrong man in the face is just one more reason why so many residents of this city don’t expect Philadelphia police to police themselves.

What amounted to a slap on the wrist for two officers who by all accounts except their own failed to properly respond to a report of gunshots fired adds to the Police Department’s poor reputation in neighborhoods where cooperation with law enforcement is too often considered a pointless exercise.

Seeing a double standard applied to officers who were observed improperly firing their weapons doesn’t instill confidence in the justice system. Seeing police officers protect each other when they know one of their own has done something wrong sends a terrible message to communities where standing up for the truth could put your life in jeopardy.

On April 22, 2014, plainclothes officers Mitchell Farrell and Kevin Hanvey stopped their unmarked car near Willows Avenue and 51st Street in West Philadelphia to respond to a report of gunshots. They encountered a 20-year-old Delaware County Community College student, Philippe Holland, who had delivered a cheeseburger to a residence for the restaurant where he worked.

Holland said in a deposition that two men approached his Taurus after he slipped into the car. He said the men did not identify themselves as police so he started to pull the car out of its parking spot. “As soon as I moved, I felt the bullet passing my leg,” said Holland. He was also shot under his right eye, leaving it disfigured. Bullet fragments in his brain cannot be removed.

Fourteen bullets were fired into Holland’s car. Three lawyers who just happened to be near enough to see the shooting told staff writer Mensah Dean they thought it was a carjacking. “We were sitting there and talking and everything was really quiet and calm. Then, all a sudden, shots rang out,” said Valerie Palazzo.

The case of mistaken identity resulted in the largest settlement for a police shooting in Philadelphia history, $4.4 million, which was announced in January. Only then were Farrell and Hanvey suspended even though it was clear when they shot Holland that they had violated a department policy prohibiting officers from shooting at a moving car.

If witness accounts are correct, the two officers, who have since returned to street duty, could have been charged criminally for shooting an unarmed person without any apparent provocation. Instead, they were placed on administrative leave with pay for much of the period before their suspensions.

That’s typical for Philadelphia. Dean reported the District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged a single on-duty officer in any of the 430 police-involved shootings in the city between 2007 and 2016. That ratio suggests justice isn’t the same for police.