Officer John Baird’s reputation preceded him. When he pounded on row-house doors in his North Philadelphia patrol area, hustlers and hard-working citizens alike grew nervous.
The word on the street was that Baird was a tough cop--tough on dealers flush with cash, tough on their hard-boiled friends and families, tough on anyone unlucky enough to cross his path.
All Philadelphia now knows Baird’s reputation. Its public airing in recent weeks has staggered the city’s criminal justice system and shaken a Police Department that had hoped a decade of reform would end years of episodic corruption scandals.
Andre Bonaparte ran when he saw Baird coming on a snowy day in November, 1987. Baird was faster. “I told you never to run from me,” Baird told Bonaparte, now 27, who had been arrested once on a drug possession charge. Baird took out his regulation flashlight, Bonaparte recalled, hammering at him until he bled. Then Baird and his partner drove Bonaparte to the 39th District station, producing evidence for one more street arrest--a tiny amount of cocaine Bonaparte insisted was not his.
It was the standard whine of the perpetrator, but in this case, as in too many cases in North Philadelphia, it happened to be true. Baird was among a corrupt cell of uniformed officers in the 39th District who shook down drug dealers, beating them, planting evidence and trumping up charges against criminals and innocent victims, most of them poor and black.
Indicted last February by a federal grand jury for violating the civil rights of more than 40 Philadelphians and stealing more than $100,000 in cash and property, Baird and five other officers have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced at the end of the month.
Their admissions have overturned 60 criminal cases--including Bonaparte’s--and are threatening hundreds more, setting off legal tremors inside Philadelphia’s courtrooms and reinforcing longstanding complaints in the city’s poor, minority communities that police corruption and abuse are out of control.
“There is an absolute tie between police corruption and brutality and the racism of white officers,” said City Councilman Michael Nutter, who represents voters in part of the 39th Police District. “This wouldn’t have been tolerated in a working-class white community.”
Just as Mark Fuhrman’s taped confessions raised doubts about reformers’ ability to recast police culture in Los Angeles, the yawning scandal in Philadelphia provides graphic evidence that even a few “rotten apples” can negate years of systematic police reform and cause epic damage to a police department’s efforts to control crime.
“It makes you wonder about every case you ever worked on,” said Bradley S. Bridge, a city public defender who is overseeing a review of more than 1,400 criminal convictions based on recantations by the corrupt officers.
Almost weekly, prisoners shuffle into downtown courtrooms, then are freed by judges citing statements that 39th District officers planted drugs, falsified police reports and rigged confessions. Some of the defendants’ stories sound like modern updates of “Les Miserables.”
One innocent victim, George Porchea, 27, served two years in jail after drugs were hidden in an apartment he was visiting overnight. Another, Betty Patterson, a 54-year-old grandmother, was imprisoned for three years for selling cocaine. A housekeeper and devout church parishioner, Patterson was out on parole when she learned in July that Baird and two other officers had admitted planting narcotics in her row house before she was arrested.
The officers’ crimes were uncovered by Philadelphia investigators and federal agents in 1991 after Arthur Colbert, a Temple University student, swore out a complaint against Baird for beating him. It was the 23rd complaint against Baird in his 14-year career. All had been dismissed by internal investigators as unfounded.
“People in the neighborhood constantly complained about these cops,” said Margaret Boyce, an attorney for Porchea and Bonaparte. “And it wasn’t just the druggies. Everybody knew to steer clear of them.”
Police and prosecutors admit innocents were caught up in the corrupt officers’ schemes. But they insist that most of those arrested were career criminals who are now being freed or cleared of old charges on legal technicalities.
“Guilty people are walking free because bad cops cut corners,” said Capt. Frankie Heyward, a 30-year police veteran who took over the 39th District in the wake of the growing investigation.
Silent for years, poor residents of the 39th District are now coming forward with tales of mistreatment by local officers. “A lot of them said nothing because they thought nothing would be done,” Heyward said. “They figured the code of silence would keep everything under wraps.”
A veteran reformer, Heyward is a black officer who served with Los Angeles Police Chief Willie Williams in Philadelphia’s park police force in the 1960s. Brought in after the 39th District’s commanders were purged, Heyward now has two daunting tasks ahead of him: reassuring the community’s suspicious residents while reminding his 150 patrol officers that any hint of corruption and brutality will be dealt with sternly.
Weeding out bad police officers has been a longstanding weakness of the Philadelphia force. Corruption scandals have erupted regularly since the 1950s, not only during the reign of Frank (Il Bambino) Rizzo, the department’s no-nonsense chief and later Philadephia mayor, but also throughout the reform years that followed.
Williams was Philadelphia’s commissioner for over three years until he won the Los Angeles job in April, 1992. It was under Williams that Baird and his colleagues made dozens of their now overturned arrests. Despite his reputation as a reformer, Williams is now being second-guessed for allowing the scandal to grow unchecked on his watch.
High-ranking Philadelphia police officials have said little publicly about the latest scandal and with good reason--it is still growing. Federal agents are combing through old cases in other city police districts and investigating former Philadelphia officers now working for the state Highway Patrol.
Some critics say that Philadelphia’s new wave of corruption, like similar scandals plaguing police departments this year in New York and New Orleans, indicate that police reform is being mismanaged or allowed to flag after being declared a success.
“Reforms don’t penetrate and they don’t stick if the supervisors from the upper levels down into the station houses aren’t made accountable,” said Temple University criminal justice professor James Fyfe.
Andre Bonaparte came away from his two years in prison--where he earned a high school equivalency degree--thinking the same thing. Despite the fact that three old convictions are now overturned and he has won a fresh start, Bonaparte’s pulse still throbs every time a police car passes by.
“There’s still cops out there screwing people’s lives up,” he said. “It’s gone on for years and it ain’t about to stop now.”