By Kenneth Lipp
The Declaration’s investigation into the histories of two Philly Police officers, arrested and charged in February with assaulting an innocent man and falsifying reports to cover their crime, has revealed a chilling pattern of similar incidents involving one or both now suspended 25th District officers. And IAD reports indicate that when partnered with other officers, Sean McKnight and Kevin Robinson were individually prone to excessive force. In the case of one particularly toxic pairing with Robinson, his counterpart rivaled the now disgraced peace officer in brutality, had multiple complaints related to use-of-force sustained against him, and still polices the streets of Philadelphia.
Officer Brian Waters, under investigation in an IAD complaint along with Officer Kevin Robinson, has been named in at least 3 Federal civil rights lawsuits against the City. He has received multiple IAD complaints himself, and in a pedestrian stop 3 years ago, leading to one of the Federal suits implicating Waters and a dozen other officers, a physical abuse complaint against him for hitting Darren Tramell with his police car was sustained by Internal Affairs, though no complaints against Robinson were sustained.
In the same 2012 incident Waters was also cited for violating Philadelphia Police Directive 78, for using a non-regulation flashlight in the attack on Tramell, while the physical abuse complaint against the officer for beating Tramell in the head with it was not sustained.
According to the concluding IAD memorandum, when a Highway Patrol Sergeant arrived late on scene Officer Waters “handed [him] a flashlight and told him to hold it; the flashlight was wet with blood.”
Like in the case of Najee Rivera, this time with a different accomplice, two officers accused of running someone down with their vehicle gave a starkly different narrative than non-police sources provided. And as in Rivera’s case, officer statements were given almost scripture-like weight over civilian testimony. After the assault on Darren Tramell, however, not even Waters’s and Robinson’s word is taken wholesale; the investigating detective told IAD he didn’t arrest Tramell for assaulting Robinson for knocking the officer down because Robinson couldn’t keep his story straight about how he got to the ground or back up again. Charges against Tramell ended with a judge suppressing the initial stop on the grounds that police lacked reasonable suspicion.
On January 19, 2012, Officer Kevin Robinson told Lt. Whalen when the IAD investigator interviewed him a almost a month after the alleged abuse, he and his partner were on patrol near Swanson and Somerset Streets at around 11:00 PM. He said they observed a male, Tramell, standing on the street corner in an area “known for drug activity and violent crime.” Robinson said that he became suspicious that Tramell might have a gun after he “made eye contact with the officers…grabbed his waistband and turned away.”
The police officers said they approached the man to have a discussion, that he began resisting them when they attempted to detain him for a “safety frisk,” and that after they failed with “all control holds” and attempts to subdue Tramell with a Taser, the suspect escaped from them and ran northbound up Swanson Street. Robinson pursued on foot, he said, while Officer Waters followed in the patrol car.
The initial statement given by Officer Brian Waters, 4 days shy of a month after the fact, corroborates his partner’s account. Waters said he followed Robinson in pursuit of the suspect, a man they feared was much stronger than they and appeared to be on PCP, and that “as he pulled up to where P/O Robinson and Mr. Tramell were struggling…saw Mr. Tramell take P/O Robinson ‘like a ragdoll,’ and throw him on the ground on his back,” reads the Internal Affairs report.
The 25th District officers say they then engaged in a struggle with Tramell, in which Waters says his “instincts took over” out of fear for his partner’s life, and that knowing from “dozens of arrests involving PCP” that his suspect was under its influence and thus impervious to OC Spray or Taser, he “struck Mr. Tramell in the head and upper body with his flashlight, continuously.”
The officers’ statements both claim that after back-up arrived they were able to handcuff and control Mr. Tramell, to wash the blood from Waters’ flashlight at the suggestion of Sgt. Hunter, and to locate narcotics in the suspect’s left front jacket pocket. Waters said in his account to IAD that afterward he drove to Episcopal Hospital where Tramell had been brought for treatment to find him in a gurney fighting his restraints.
Darren Tramell was interviewed in jail by Lt. Whalen of Internal Affairs, roughly 24 hours after he encountered Officers Robinson and Waters on the 2800 block of Swanson Street. That freezing Thursday night 3 years ago he was walking to a friend’s house, he said, when a police car behind him flashed its lights and the officers yelled at him to remove his hands from his jacket. He said he complied with the officers as they exited the vehicle and told him to put his hands on a wall, telling them that he did nothing wrong and asking why they were stopping him.
Tramell said they called him a racial epithet and a “piece of shit’ and that one of the cops started to choke and beat him. He said they both punched him, threw him in the street, and shot at him with a Taser, and that he managed to get up to run, fearing for his life. The next thing Tramell remembered “was a police car drove up and hit him in the back.” He said additional officers arrived and joined in beating him. Tramell, a Muslim, called out to god in Arabic. “Allah hu-Akbar,” he screamed, and “help me,” to which one officer replied, “What, do you have a bomb on you?”
He was then “thrown” into a transport and taken to Episcopal Hospital, a few blocks away, where he stated that he was treated for a “broken bone to the left side and back of his head and received nine stitches to the left side of his face. He also had a swollen left eye, a blood clot on the tip of his left index finger, and various scratches and bruises.
Civilian witnesses interviewed by Internal Affairs gave accounts that corroborate Tramell’s and contradict the narrative given by police. At least 10 residents of the vicinity saw a police car run Mr. Tramell down, followed by their witnessing the car’s occupants striking him repeatedly with flashlights and “metal objects,” and the arrival of multiple other officers who they saw join in on the assault. One woman did not see additional units reach the scene, telling IAD that she watched the police car run him over and that “when she saw Mr. Tramell bleeding, she became scared and closed the window.”
All of the officers interviewed backed-up the statements of their colleagues Robinson and Waters, stating that all police actions they observed were reasonable. In most of the interviews, interestingly, officers remember noticing Waters’s flashlight, perhaps because IAD investigators asked all of them questions about it.
The failure of the IAD investigation to sustain any of the complaints of abuse, save one against a single officer, was possible because overwhelming testimony from witnesses, which supported Tramell’s claim of abuse and called into serious question the police narrative, was largely discarded. Cited as reasons were the inability of the complainant and eyewitnesses to recall some details or ID specific officers.
Where Tramell or civilians interviewed could not demonstrably refute them, officers’ simply denying allegations was regarded as sufficient defense. In circumstances when complaints were supported by civilian witnesses and no other officers were yet on scene, investigators relied on the accused’s statements of what they witnessed to judge the complainant’s credibility, as can be seen in the IAD report to the Police Commissioner concluding the complaint of Darren Tramell.
Only where 8 of ten witnesses gave independent verification did investigators find against Waters for hitting Tramell with his patrol car.
The Investigative Analysis concluded that physical abuse allegations against Officer Kevin Robinson and Sgt. David Hunter should not be sustained, nor should verbal abuse complaints against multiple officers. It also found in Officer Waters’s favor in complaints of physically abusing Tramell “by choking and punching him” and “by striking him with his flashlight.”
Almost all witnesses say that multiple, as many as 10 or 12, police officers participated in beating Mr. Tramell with fists and objects by 11:20 that night on Swanson Street. One woman said that Tramell “could not move or fight back with officers because he was handcuffed the whole time.”
But investigators did not sustain several complaints against multiple “unknown officers” for physically abusing Tramell because he “kind of blacked out” and could not identify any of the cops that assaulted him. The blanket denial of all of the police officers questioned by IAD is accepted because witness accounts were “inconsistent” and no one could make a positive ID.
Almost a dozen police officers told the grand jury investigating Sean McKnight and Kevin Robinson that they arrived too late to witness the struggle.
The IAD report notes that the District Attorney’s Office investigated and declined to prosecute the officers. The suit by Tramell against the City and the officers is in settlement conference. While the Internal Affairs report was ongoing, both Waters and Sgt. Hunter were honored for heroism and merit, respectively.