Pam Africa (right) leads a march in the snow in Philadelphia on Dec. 9, the anniversary of the 1981 arrest and shooting of Black activist and political commentator Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia was framed up by cops and the corrupt “justice” system on false charges of killing a Philadelphia police officer. The marchers demanded that the Philadelphia district attorney’s office release all the files regarding Mumia’s case, particularly those of former DA Ron Castille, who later sat as a judge during Mumia’s appeals. They vowed to “bring Mumia home” from prison. Photo: Marty Goodman / Socialist Action.
by John Leslie, Originally published on Socialist Action
In mid-November, federal agents arrested a Philadelphia police officer, Eric Snell, for allegedly acting as a middleman for a drug ring run by a Baltimore police firearms task force. In addition to the drug charges, Snell is accused of possession of illegal firearms and threatening the children of one of the accused Baltimore cops. Snell, a three-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) had previously been a Baltimore cop. Snell’s brother is alleged to have sold the drugs in Philadelphia.
Eight Baltimore cops stand accused of framing and extorting suspects, overtime fraud, and stealing money, cocaine, and heroin. The drugs were then resold on the streets of Philadelphia. Baltimore prosecutors have been forced to drop charges against more than 100 defendants who were accused by these corrupt cops.
In another incident, which Baltimore police officials say is unrelated, a homicide detective, Sean Suiter, was killed in the line of duty on Nov. 16. Suiter was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury in this case on the day after he was killed. Suiter’s killer remains at large. Despite claims that Suiter “struggled” with his assailant, it is reported that his radio was still in his left hand.
Police corruption in Philly
Police corruption is nothing new in Philadelphia. In 1995, scandal rocked the city when 39th District cops were accused of framing suspects, violating civil rights, violence, and theft of money. In all, seven Philly cops were convicted. As many as 300 cases were overturned and about 100 people released from prison for being framed by corrupt cops.
A key witness for the government against the 39th District cops was long-time police informant Pamela Jenkins. Jenkins, a prostitute, had been a confidential informant and girlfriend of one of the accused officers, Thomas Ryan. Jenkins had previously testified against Mumia Abu-Jamal in his frame-up trial for the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner. Jenkins later recanted her testimony in Mumia’s case.
The 39th District scandal wasn’t the end of police malfeasance in Philadelphia. In May, 2015, six Philly narcotics officers, Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, and John Speiser were found not guilty in a federal trial. They had been accused of faking and planting evidence, theft of drugs and money and of framing suspects. A seventh officer, Jeffrey Walker, took a plea deal and agreed to testify against the others. After their acquittal, the six got their jobs back. (One was subsequently fired after failing a drug test.)
More than 1000 convictions have been thrown out in the wake of the drug squad case, with more than 200 remaining to be reviewed. This case will cost city taxpayers an estimated $24 million, as the city settles lawsuits brought by the victims of police corruption.
In April 2015, a 19-year veteran of the force, Christopher Hulmes, was arrested for perjury and making false reports. Former DA Seth Williams let Hulmes get off with pre-trial intervention and the promise not to return to law enforcement. The district attorney’s office stated that more than 500 cases involving Hulmes were under review.
District attorney Seth Williams, originally elected as a “reformer,” pled guilty after being indicted on corruption and bribery charges early in 2017. The district attorney’s office in Philadelphia is notorious for withholding evidence in capital cases, collusion with cops, exclusion of Black people from juries, and refusing to prosecute corrupt and violent cops. It’s laughable to think that the DA’s office would be able to oversee the police.
Civil asset forfeiture in Philadelphia allows cops to legally rob working people in a scheme in which money, vehicles, and homes can be confiscated in narcotics cases. The money is used by the department and the DA’s office to finance salaries and equipment. The vehicles are either sold at auction or used by cops or District Attorney’s office employees. Civil asset forfeiture is a racket in which police agencies and DA’s offices profit even when the person whose assets are seized is never charged with any crime.
The incoming DA, Larry Krasner, has promised to stop this practice, but it remains to be seen whether seizure of assets can be stopped or how far Krasner can go in reforming the office.
Krasner’s transition team includes Ron Castille. Castille worked in the DA’s office from 1971-1991, first as an assistant DA (ADA) and then as the elected district attorney. He was then elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where he refused to recuse himself from ruling in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia’s case had been prosecuted by the Philadelphia DA’s office during Castille’s tenure as an ADA. Castille was district attorney when the racist McMahon “training tape,” which instructed prosecutors on how to exclude Black people from juries, was produced.
The presence of Philadelphia attorney, and vocal police critic Michael Coard on Krasner’s transition team is encouraging, but waiting for reform from above won’t work. Philadelphia police act as an occupying force in neighborhoods of people of color. Only grassroots organizing and united-front mass action in the streets can hold police accountable in the long term. We can’t wait for Krasner to clean up the DA’s office, but must mobilize as many people as possible against police violence, official corruption, and mass incarceration.
Police corruption, civil rights violations, and violence against communities are all linked. Corruption needs to be rooted out, but we can’t rely on liberal politicians for solutions. Police and the district attorney’s office are part of the repressive arm of the state and serve to feed the regime of mass incarceration. Socialists call for police abolition and their replacement by democratic, community-based solutions. Policing should be accountable to democratically elected community boards and not overseen by the district attorneys.
The current system in Philadelphia, with a toothless Police Advisory Commission, must be completely overhauled, with strict accountability of cops to the community, and with the community able to discipline corrupt or violent police officers. Socialists also call for the labor movement to repudiate ties to police and prison guard unions, which play a racist and reactionary role both within the labor movement and in defense of killer cops.