By Kenneth Lipp
Two Philadelphia Police Department officers have each been charged with 8 separate counts for the alleged assault, and its subsequent cover-up, of Najee Rivera in Spring of 2013. District Attorney Seth Williams and Philly Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey both addressed the media today to detail the findings of a grand jury investigation of officers Kevin Robinson and Sean McKnight, for the brutal beating of Rivera after he was knocked off of his motor scooter by their patrol car on the evening of May 29 2013. The officers are also charged with allegedly filing false reports in order to cover up their crime, “while Rivera was at the hospital” with an orbital fracture, himself under arrest for aggravated assault, resisting arrest, and related charges.
The case against Mr. Rivera was dropped, Williams told reporters today, after his girlfriend brought authorities a video from a nearby store which showed that Officers’ Robinson and McKnight had pursued and attacked Rivera without cause. The grand jury presentment document provided to media describes surveillance footage in which the police officers chase down the victim on his scooter without “emergency lights on and without orders, commands, or sounds or sirens” before “a blur of motion…followed by the police car striking Rivera on his scooter.” The video then shows Robinson and McKnight approach the fallen Rivera and grab him, with Robinson holding the victim against the wall for his partner to beat before pulling him to the ground, where both police officers continued to strike Mr. Rivera “with the baton and fists.”
The presentment says that “after about 40 seconds of continued repeated strikes, McKnight and Robinson placed Rivera into handcuffs and held him down with a foot on his back,” and that he was under either one or the other policeman’s boot for at least four minutes “as he lay on the ground bleeding.” A third officer who arrived on the scene testified before the grand jury that he thought Rivera had been shot, according to DA Williams. The victim testified before the grand jury that he “recalled being struck while on the ground, but does not remember the incident clearly due to the beating.”
Commissioner Ramsey said at the press conference this morning that both officers would be immediately suspended for 30 days with the intent to dismiss, and that they have been off of the streets on office duty since or very soon after the video evidence came to light in August of 2013. McKnight, an 8 year veteran of the department, and Robinson, a 7 year PPD veteran, have both received 7 citizen complaints since they were hired in ’07 and ’08, respectively, and both were found to have violated department Use of Force policy in a 2010 incident.
The Police Advisory Commission (PAC), Philly’s civilian police watchdog, has requested all Internal Affairs Division records related to the 2010 complaint. “Any significant sustained use of force complaint, especially against officers just 3 and 2 years on the force, should have incurred additional scrutiny,” said Kelvyn Anderson, the PAC’s Executive Director. “Any sustained complaint merits a sit-down with a commanding officer,” he added. Complaints against officers are rarely sustained, and even more rarely result in prosecution.
Anderson says the Commission will review evidence and findings from the 2010 incident to determine what internal safeguards were or were not put in place as a result of the complaint. That citizen complaint was filed with PPD Internal Affairs by the aunt of a victim, who she says she came outside of her home to find her nephew being savagely beaten by Officers McKnight and Robinson. (That complaint file is now closed, thus open for the public to review. The Declaration has requested it from Internal Affairs).
Police Commissioner Ramsey was adamant in his remarks today that while he was committed to purging his agency of corrupt elements, such elements were the exception in his 6,500-officer-strong force. “It’s been a tough time,” Ramsey said of the last few days of convictions and indictments against former and current officers,”but every person like this that we remove brings us another step closer to the kind of department that the people of this city deserve. Sometimes to heal you have to have a little pain.”
Officials did not volunteer the record of complaints against the charged officers during today’s press conference. Questioned by media about why the department had not searched on its own for possible video which would in fact eventually “undermine every aspect of [Robinson and McKnight’s] account,” according to DA Williams, Ramsey admitted “Well, we should have.” DA Seth Williams noted the possible future utility of using officer-worn camera footage to audit complaints, acknowledging that no measure would provide a complete solution.
Detective James Brooks, assigned to investigate the arrest of Mr. Rivera, testified before the grand jury that “because he was not an actual witness to the officers’ interaction with Rivera, he had to rely on their account of the incident in preparing his investigative paperwork.”
Williams said that Rivera had already settled a civil suit against the city over the incident for $200,000.
The District Attorney opened the press conference to questions by reiterating an opening declaration, that today’s indictments were a vindication of the investigative grand jury system, as well as of Williams’ office’s capacity to prosecute crimes by law enforcement officers in its own jurisdiction. The DA dismissed the need for intervention by an unspecified third-party, telling reporters today that it was “not necessary to bring in another agency” to investigate police officer wrongdoing. “That’s my job,” said Williams.
A review of the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of firearms, requested by Ramsey in 2013, has been completed by the Department of Justice and detailed to PPD brass. The PAC sent a letter to the DOJ’s COPS office director last week urging it to release its findings to the public as promised.
The full charges against both officers include one count each of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, tampering with public records or information, false reports to law enforcement authorities, obstructing administration of law, and official oppression.
Read the full grand jury presentment below, courtesy Joel Mathis at Philadelphia Magazine.