It was a warm day in April 2010, and the crackle of gunfire echoed along one of the thin streets that run parallel to poverty, parallel to violence, and parallel to the stories South Philly repeatedly tells.
This time it was Pierce Street, near 20th and Morris, and the story was like so many others. The bullets missed their intended target, grazed a young woman a block away, and plunged the neighborhood into a familiar cycle of chaos.
When the smoke cleared, a cellphone lay on the ground, and the pictures it contained would bind two cousins—Shareif and Hafiz Durbin—in the Police Department's tangled search for a conviction. Their uncle, a police sergeant named Tyrone Cook, was placed on a collision course with the department and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). It was a collision, Cook said, that eventually cost him his job.
Cook was recovering from a medical procedure and working light duty in the department's Differential Police Response Unit when he learned that his nephew Shareif was the leading suspect in the Pierce Street shooting. The shooter had dropped his phone at the scene, and when detectives found it, they saw pictures of Shareif and assumed it was his.
However, the streets were telling a different story.
"People were calling me saying, your cousin did this shooting," Shareif Durbin told me. "So I called [Hafiz] and I asked him what's going on.
"He was like, 'Naw, that wasn't me.'"
Shareif didn't believe him. Nor did Tyrone Cook. But when police raided Shareif's mother's house, and Shareif later went to police to explain that the phone wasn't his, Shareif was arrested in the shooting.
Cook was angry. He believed detectives wrongly used pictures from the phone to suggest to witnesses that Shareif was the shooter. So Cook went to Internal Affairs and the FBI to accuse the arresting detectives of acting improperly. Then, Cook says, the Police Department told Cook he was under investigation.
This wasn't the first time Cook's outspokenness had led to trouble. He was featured in a 1991 Daily News article in which he complained of racial bias in the department. "You can see all the black cops that get fired for the same thing white officers do, and you tell me that's not racial," he said then.
Years later, Cook was fired after what he described as a false charge of driving under the influence. He filed a grievance and was rehired.This time, though, things were different.
While Cook's nephew Shareif Durbin was held for a total of eight months in municipal prison awaiting trial for a crime he was eventually cleared of committing; Tyrone Cook was again fighting for his job. Only this time, it seemed, he was fighting almost by himself.
After he spoke up in his nephew's case, Cook was accused of being late dozens of times. But the accusations were six years old.
I contacted the Police Department and asked why Cook was disciplined. I did not get an answer by press time. Cook, however, believes the case was all about retaliation. And he said that was evident at his arbitration hearing, when he attempted to get his job back after being fired.
The FOP — which fights doggedly for officers who are accused of robbing, beating, and even killing citizens in the line of duty — often gets officers' jobs back through arbitration. But in Cook's case, FOP lawyer Marc Gelman called no witnesses, and in a department where officers have committed serious crimes and gone back to work, Cook was fired for being late and falsifying time sheets—a charge Cook denies.In 2016, Cook sued Gelman, whom I contacted for comment. Gelman did not respond.
But in court documents, Gelman had an interesting exchange with Cook's lawyer, Matthew Weisberg.
"Did you represent his union, and in turn, attempt to assist him in having — in getting his job back?" Weisberg asked.
"Yes," Gelman said. "Was I his lawyer? No."
"So sitting here today, you are telling the jury that you were not his lawyer."
"At the grievance arbitration at issue, no. Absolutely, yes, I am telling them I was absolutely not his lawyer."
"So who was?"
"He didn't have a lawyer … That wasn't me. Grievants are not entitled to — there's no entitlement in the law and certainly not in the contract that a grievant have an attorney representing them at a grievance arbitration."
"Did you tell him that … he should get an attorney?
"No, he's not entitled to an attorney. Only the parties are entitled to attorneys, and the party I am concerned with, Lodge 5, had an attorney."
Cook lost his job, and he lost his case against Gelman. But Cook's story exposes disturbing truths.
In a department where cops have killed people under questionable circumstances and kept their badges, in a culture where police are imbued with the power of life and death, a cop who speaks up for justice is fired for being late.
It's time to review that system of uneven punishment. Because if we can't expect colorblind justice within the Police Department, how can we expect it for the rest of us?