Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

November 25–December 2, 1999

cover story

Blood on the Badge

Why can't the Philly police rein in complaint-ridden cops?

by Noel Weyrich

Of the millions in settlement dollars paid out to the survivors of Philadelphia police misconduct and brutality over the past several decades, the payment made to Donta Dawson’s mother in August was one of the largest ever — and one of the fastest.

When Cynthia Dawson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on April 15 for the shooting death of her son by police Officer Christopher DiPasquale, it took the city solicitor’s office little more than 10 weeks to come up with a $712,500 offer to settle.

For that kind of money, theoretically, the city could have paid the salaries of an additional 20 cops for a year. The city solicitor decided nonetheless that this was the steep price of heading off a lawsuit that threatened to end up costing far more.

In a memo outlining the law department’s arguments for a quick settlement, the city’s lawyers feared they might lose the Dawson case not so much because of what Christopher DiPasquale had done with his 9mm Glock semiautomatic one night, but because of what the Police Department hadn’t done with Christopher DiPasquale for years.

Even though two judges had already tossed out criminal manslaughter charges against DiPasquale, the lawyers’ memo expressed worries that the patrolman’s checkered career could still make the Dawson suit very costly to defend: "Mr. DiPasquale had numerous citizens’ complaints, some of which were founded and [some of which were] unfounded. The plaintiff will argue that this evidence demonstrates that the city failed to adequately train, discipline and supervise Mr. DiPasquale, which in turn caused Dawson’s death. Thus, the issue of municipal liability will be left to the jury."

An internal police document obtained by City Paper suggests that on the night he killed Donta Dawson, Officer Christopher DiPasquale may have been one of only 20 active cops on the entire patrol force with 10 or more citizen complaints filed against him. The department’s Internal Affairs Division found conclusive proof of misconduct by DiPasquale in only one of those 10 cases, and he was definitively cleared in one other case. Eight of the cases ended like most Philadelphia police investigations of citizen complaints: The allegations were ruled either "not sustained" or "unfounded."

DiPasquale won’t comment, at the advice of his attorney Jack McMahon. But McMahon points out that "those allegations were unproven," and should be disregarded, claiming that unsubstantiated citizen complaints come with the territory in a busy district like DiPasquale’s. The settlement, he maintains, happened for other reasons: "I think the commissioner and all of them wanted to just buy an end to it all. We haven’t heard much about it since then, have we?"

But Alan Yatvin, Cynthia Dawson’s attorney, says that "settling was the smartest thing the city could have done. Someone like DiPasquale, with a pretty substantial record, should have been taken in hand, retrained and better disciplined — made less of a cowboy — long ago."

Yet, for a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with state labor laws and the city’s labor contract with the Fraternal Order of Police, there was little if anything the Police Department could have done to address the troubling, if unsubstantiated, litany of complaints on Christopher DiPasquale’s record. Discipline and retraining can be required only in cases where the department has been able to verify misconduct. Transfers can be disputed in labor grievances as being "punitive" in nature. Dozens of police officers with questionable or deeply sullied backgrounds patrol the streets each day, and Police Commissioner John Timoney, who’d like to fire or transfer many of them, grumbles that his hands have been all but tied on these and other personnel and management issues.

"The FOP has sworn to teach me a lesson that this is a labor town, that this ain’t New York," says Timoney, who spent 25 years with the NYPD. He bitterly recounts a recent labor arbitration ruling in which a former officer fired for having drugs in his system was ordered returned to the police force. "[Labor] arbitrators," he says, "are running the Police Department."

"Get the fuck out the car before I blow your head off!"


 

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Donta Dawson: Rather than defend his shooting death in court, the city settled with his mother for $712,500.There was little if anything the Police Department could have done to address the troubling, if unsubstantiated, litany of complaints on Christopher DiPasquale’s record.



A civilian witness says that’s what she heard Christopher DiPasquale and his partner, Kirk Dodd, scream repeatedly at Donta Dawson as the 19-year-old man sat, with his engine idling, under a railroad trestle in the middle of 12th Street near Glenwood in North Philadelphia.

It was 12:40 on the morning of October 1, 1998, and the two 25th District cops were faced with a perplexing and frustrating situation. The young man in the blue Oldsmobile would not respond or even acknowledge them. After a few minutes, Dodd approached the open driver-side window from behind and saw that the man was sitting on his left hand and would not remove it. Dodd even pulled on the man’s left arm to no avail. So Dodd reached across the steering wheel, switched off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition.

Then Dodd made the announcement that would seal Donta Dawson’s fate that night.

"He’s got a gun," Dodd told DiPasquale. Dodd never saw a gun, and it would turn out that Dawson didn’t have one. Later, Dodd would say that he had jumped to this conclusion merely because he had seen another man at a previous car stop conceal a gun by sitting on his hand.

The word about Dawson’s putative weapon went out over police radio, and soon there were several patrol cars and 10 police officers surrounding 5-foot-6-inch Donta Dawson, seated quietly in his car in the middle of 12th Street.

No one will ever know what Dawson was thinking. Maybe he was playing a dangerous game with the cops. Maybe the marijuana and angel dust the autopsy would find in his system had put Dawson in a stupor — which may also explain why his car was idling in the middle of the street in the first place.

But at that point, the only crime Donta Dawson had committed that night was bad parking — blocking the highway. And with his car switched off, with the keys in Dodd’s pocket, Dawson wasn’t much of a threat to anyone.

While all the other police officers took cover around the car, DiPasquale assumed a more aggressive position, less than 8 feet from Dawson. His squad car was parked in the street parallel to Dawson’s car, on the driver side. DiPasquale stretched over the hood of his car, gun pointed at Dawson’s head.

When Dawson suddenly and inexplicably reached down, and then abruptly raised his empty left hand, only DiPasquale opened fire.

One of DiPasquale’s bullets smashed through the rear side window of Dawson’s car. The other bullet tore into Dawson’s left eye and lodged in his brain. He died some 10 hours later, but not before police dragged his unconscious body to the pavement and handcuffed him.

The Internal Affairs report on the shooting would fault DiPasquale specifically for violating police directive #10, section I-B: "Police officers shall not use deadly force against another person unless they have probable cause to believe they must protect themselves or another person present from death or serious bodily injury."

New York’s infamous Amadou Diallo case — in which four plainclothes cops pumped 19 bullets into an unarmed African immigrant — would make national headlines some four months later. But in the estimation of one of Philadelphia’s best-known police brutality experts, Temple criminologist James Fyfe, a single-shooter incident can be even more troubling than one in which several officers are involved.

"You have to wonder what he saw that no one else saw," Fyfe told The New York Times in July, addressing a hypothetical case in which just one cop in a group of officers opens fire. "If you think about the options [in the Diallo case] you either have four homicidal maniacs who happen to be working together, or you have four rational guys who all saw the same thing. The chances are, you don’t have four homicidal maniacs."

Within a month of the Dawson shooting, Christopher DiPasquale became the first Philadelphia police officer in more than six years to be arrested and criminally charged with committing a homicide while on duty. Soon after, he was fired from the police force.

DiPasquale spent almost all of his eight years as a cop in the busy, crime-plagued 25th District, located north of Lehigh and east of Broad in North Philadelphia. During that time, the department’s Internal Affairs Division investigated a total of 10 formal citizen complaints about him. Nearly all of those complaints were deemed by investigators as "not sustained," a conclusion typically reached when the cop and cop’s accuser contradict each other, and there are either no witnesses or witness accounts vary.

Six of these citizen complaints came bunched together between early 1994 and the middle of 1995. People whom DiPasquale had arrested variously accused him of threatening them, harassing them, throwing them into walls, slamming them against police vehicles and punching them in their faces. During a six-week span in June and July 1995, DiPasquale alone was responsible for almost 9 percent of all the complaints registered against the 7,000-member police force. Judging by the case sequence numbers, DiPasquale was hit with three allegations of serious physical abuse in a time span when the department fielded just 31 other complaints about its officers.

All three of these cases made against DiPasquale would eventually be ruled "not sustained" or "unfounded." Yet all three complainants accused DiPasquale of vaguely similar behavior. The first, an 18-year-old Hispanic man DiPasquale arrested for drug dealing, claimed that DiPasquale threw him hard against a police van while another officer looked on.

In the second case, just four days after the first, the lawyer for a 28-year-old Hispanic man whom DiPasquale arrested for disorderly conduct claimed that DiPasquale had punched his client in the face and slammed the man against a wall in the police station, also while other police watched. An African-American man DiPasquale arrested in a domestic dispute three weeks later also claimed that DiPasquale punched him in the face at the 25th District headquarters. In each of these cases, DiPasquale was accused of being verbally abusive, and in each of these cases the other cops around DiPasquale were accused of nothing worse than passively observing his misconduct.

DiPasquale’s attorney, Jack McMahon, says that the former officer can’t make any public statements while the threat of criminal charges still hangs over his head. But in DiPasquale’s defense, McMahon says that it’s hardly a mystery why people angry about being locked up by his client would file complaints against him.

"People know that the best defense when they’re arrested is a good offense," says McMahon, who claims that citizen complaints come with the territory in tough districts. "If I saw an active cop for eight years in the 25th District with no complaints against him, if I’m the police commissioner, I’d know that that cop ain’t doing his job."

McMahon’s point is one commonly made by defenders of cops suspected of misconduct. You have to break some eggs to make omelets, the thinking goes, and aggressive cops are inevitably going to get complaints filed against them. Even the daily newspaper coverage of the Dawson shooting often made the unattributed claim that "it is not unusual for police in busy districts to have multiple complaints on their records."

The problem is that statistics and anecdotal evidence simply don’t back up this notion. For instance, a study of citizen complaints against police, or CAPs, made in 1996 shows that just 39 CAPs were filed that entire year in the 25th District, even though there are more than 200 officers typically assigned there. DiPasquale alone drew two of those 39 complaints that year. Citywide, of the 624 officers hit with CAPs in 1996, DiPasquale was one of only six who had nine or more career CAPs.

Then there’s that confidential police document listing some 90 patrol officers with more than a total of eight internal investigations on their records, including citizen complaints. Produced in late 1998, the document demonstrates that cops with high numbers of citizen complaints are hardly confined to busy crime-ridden districts. In fact, one of the CAP champs on the list, with 14 career complaints, is an officer in the sedate 7th District in the far Northeast.

Captain James Colarulo, commander of the 25th District at the time of the Dawson shooting, won’t comment specifically about DiPasquale’s record, but he is adamant there were plenty of good police officers in the 25th who never got citizen complaints. "A lot of people will tell you that an aggressive officer would historically get more complaints, but there are also aggressive officers that don’t get any complaints," he says. "That’s why you have to look at each officer and judge each complaint on its own merits. An aggressive officer might be getting complaints, but it may not be just because he’s aggressive."

But Rich Costello, president of the FOP, insists that police management has paralyzed the force in recent years by withholding desirable transfers from officers with too many citizen complaints, even of the unsustained kind. "It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out that if I go out and I don’t do anything, I won’t get any complaints, and I’ll get my transfer," he says. "Our position is that if they’re unsustained complaints, they shouldn’t be used in any way, shape or form. This crap about where there’s smoke there’s fire is an outrage. If the officer on the street put into play a lot of these little management tools they’re using, he’d be arrested, fired or worse. And it’s hardly teaching officers how to observe and protect the rights of others."


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