Two Philadelphia police officers were charged Thursday with beating a man on a scooter nearly two years ago and lying about it, resulting in wrongful charges against him.
A Philadelphia grand jury decided to charge Officers Sean McKnight and Kevin Robinson after the district attorney presented evidence. The use of prosecutor-led grand juries met deep scrutiny across the country last year after several high-profile investigations resulted in no charges for officers involved in the deaths of suspects in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
In Philadelphia, charges came after the surprise emergence of a surveillance video that shows two officers pummeling a scooter rider. The scene appeared to contradict the officers’ original account of the incident, in which they had portrayed the suspect, Najee Rivera, as a violent and vicious attacker.
“The video undermined every aspect of the officers’ account of the incident,” Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Seth Williams said at a televised news conference Thursday, appearing alongside Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. “As a grand jury found, none of it was true -- except for the blows inflicted on Najee Rivera.”
On May 29, 2013, McKnight and Kevin tried to pull over Rivera, who was riding a scooter. Rivera told the grand jury that he became frightened and sped away after the officers got out of their car with their batons extended and said, “Come here!” according to grand jury charging documents.
In the officers’ original account of the incident, they said Rivera then fell off his scooter and attacked one of them.
“While running towards my partner I saw the Hispanic male grab my partner with both his hands by his chest upper vest area and slammed him into a brick wall of the building. The Hispanic male held my partner up against the wall and began throwing elbows towards my partner’s face and head area,” McKnight said in a signed statement, echoing the account given by Robinson, according to the charging documents. Both officers are white.
The officers said they they had to beat Rivera to subdue him. Rivera faced charges including assault and resisting arrest based on their statements.
But officials said those charges were dropped after Rivera’s girlfriend canvassed the neighborhood after the incident and found surveillance video from a local store that “directly refuted” the officers’ “false and inaccurate” statements, according to the documents.
Williams, the district attorney, gave a blistering account of what the footage showed.
“In reality, Rivera didn’t just fall off his scooter as officers approached in their patrol car. Instead, one of them actually reached out of the window and clubbed Rivera in the head; the car bumped the scooter and Rivera fell to the ground,” Williams said at the news conference.
“Both officers then got out and immediately placed Rivera in their control. He never resisted, he never struck them, he never fought back, they just started hitting him,” Williams continued. “First, one held him against the wall, while the other beat him with a baton. Then they held him on the ground and beat him some more, with both fist and baton.
“There’s no doubt that the blows were connecting, because the video also had audio, and you can hear Mr. Rivera from the time he fell off his scooter, writhing in pain, screaming for help.”
The beating fractured Rivera’s right orbital bone of his face, swelled one of his eyes shut, and left him with cuts requiring stitches and staples, according to the charging documents.
The grand jury recommended eight charges for each officer: criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, tampering with public records, false reports to law enforcement, obstruction, and official oppression.
The officers were arraigned Thursday, Williams said. A representative for the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, the local police union, could not confirm whether the officers had union attorneys yet.
Williams’ office has recently pressed charges in two different cases alleging police misconduct. On Monday, Sgt. Brandon Ruff was accused of providing false identification to law enforcement for giving a false name while dropping off guns belonging to other people, according to a news release.
On Jan. 22, a homicide detective, Ronald Dove, was charged with several counts related to obstructing a murder investigation after officials said they discovered Dove had been hiding the prime suspect.
The charges against Dove also came after a grand jury investigation, and Williams said Thursday that prosecutors had a responsibility to use grand juries to hold police accountable for abuses.
“We don’t need to create other agencies, other entities,” such as civilian review boards to investigate police abuse, Williams told the Los Angeles Times in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s my responsibility as [district attorney] to investigate crimes. If the citizens believe I can’t do that, or won’t do that, the recourse is to get rid of me.”
Williams, who is black, said at the news conference that two weeks ago he convened a meeting of black district attorneys to talk about how to handle grand juries in the wake of widespread protests after grand juries rejected indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York. Both Brown and Garner were black; the officers involved in their deaths were white.
“The consensus was that it is our responsibility not only to work with police day in and day out, but also to hold them accountable on those particular occasions when an officer does wrong,” Williams told reporters.
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