Police Track 'At-risk' Officers "The List\" Contains Those Who Have Had Several Complaints. The Department Says It's Part Of A Future Policy. The Fop Says It's Used To Punish Officers.

Posted: December 31, 1995

Officer Robert Zaffino is on The List.

The city has settled three lawsuits brought against him, one alleging that he ran over a Town Watch member while chasing a suspect, another alleging that he punched a woman who complained he tromped on her flowers.

Officer Robert DeBellis is also a member of The List.

The city has settled three lawsuits against him as well, one for $250,000 brought by the family of a West Philadelphia photographer who died in a struggle with police after a routine traffic stop.

Officer Willie Robinson has been on The List for two years.

In 1994, the police Internal Affairs Division upheld a citizen complaint that alleged he stomped on two North Philadelphia men, put a gun to their heads, and threatened to blow their brains out after someone threw a bucket of water at his car.

Officer Leo Ferreira is there, too.

He has had 20 civilian complaints filed against him in a nine-year career - the most for any officer on the force.

For three years, the Philadelphia Police Department has secretly compiled a list of officers it considers at-risk employees. Copies of the lists obtained by The Inquirer show that the 1993 list contained the names of 21 officers - Zaffino, Robinson, DeBellis and Ferreira among them.

The 21 officers had a combined total of 180 complaints brought against them and about $2 million in lawsuit settlements.

The list raises more questions about the department's ability to police itself. Internal Affairs records show that some officers committed serious breaches of conduct but were given light suspensions.

And the mere existence of the list - as well as what it might be used for - recently became the focus of yet another costly arbitration battle between the department and its powerful union, the Fraternal Order of Police.

The FOP says the department is using the list to punish officers by denying them promotions or transfers to better districts. The department says the list is not being used for anything yet but eventually will become part of a badly needed policy on at-risk officers - although no timetable has been set.

The arbitration battle concerns Ferreira, who says the list was used to

deny him a promotion to corporal. He says the list also predisposes Internal Affairs to rule against an officer when a citizen files a complaint.

"It's all because I'm on the list," Ferreira said. "You're afraid to say hello to people because they might file a complaint. And they're going to sustain it if you're on the list."

Only one of the 20 complaints against Ferreira has been sustained. That complaint arose from the 1994 arrest of Brian Kane, 16, of Port Richmond, on a charge of disorderly conduct. Kane passed a police lie-detector test in which he alleged that Ferreira banged his head against a pole, dragged his face across the sidewalk, and slammed his face into a car.

Kane was with a group of neighborhood teenagers when someone threw a bottle at a woman, and she called police.

Kane was found guilty of disorderly conduct. Ferreira was suspended for two days. He is appealing the suspension.

Also last year, the city agreed to pay $50,000 last year to a Center City lawyer who said Ferreira beat him up immediately after the lawyer had won the dismissal of charges against a suspect Ferreira had arrested.

Ferreira says he never beat the boy, and he says the scuffle with the lawyer started when the lawyer kicked him. "I know what I did, and I can sleep every night. I'm out there protecting the public," Ferreira said. "I have a wall with commendations on it."

Former Deputy Commissioner Thomas Seamon testified in a July deposition that the department wanted the list to "try to intervene at an early stage with those employees to see that their problems did not get worse and didn't end up in a situation where either they would be terminated and/or arrested."

He said the department considered Ferreira an officer at risk.

"We felt that it was only a matter of time before Officer Ferreira either had a sustained complaint that would result in his termination or, (even) worse, in his arrest for mistreatment of a citizen," Seamon said.

A Sept. 3, 1992, departmental memo listing the first group of "at-risk" officers says several factors were used in determining whether an officer was placed on the list.

"Although complaint frequency was the main factor in the identification process, other determinants such as identifiable patterns, gravity of complaints, assignments, and the nature of complaints were also part of the selection formula," the memo reads.

Many officers appeared on the 1992 list and an updated version in 1993.

One was Robinson, with 13 complaints against him, one of them sustained.

Robinson was suspended for four days in March when Internal Affairs upheld a complaint alleging that he put his gun to the heads of two North Philadelphia residents after someone threw a bucket of water at his patrol car. The two citizens said Robinson kicked them in the head, neck and back while they were lying on the ground.

The Internal Affairs report said Robinson left his radio on during the incident, and the police radio room tape-recorded him telling one of the men that he would "blow his f-ing brains out."

In an interview last week, Robinson said he was frightened when facing a mob of 40 to 50 angry residents of a housing project. He said one of the men kept reaching for a concealed item that could have been a gun.

"Maybe I should have said, 'Please let me see your hands, sir,' " he said. "I'm human."

Robinson said he was appealing the suspension through an arbitration board.

DeBellis is also on the list. The city paid $250,000 to settle a suit by the family of Michael Grant, 34, a West Philadelphia photographer who died in April 1991 after a scuffle with DeBellis and another officer during a traffic stop. The city medical examiner ruled that Grant died of a cocaine overdose, complicated by the struggle.

In a separate settlement last year, the city paid $20,000 to Martin Carrasquillo, who sued in 1989 contending that DeBellis had beaten him with a nightstick during an arrest.

A third suit against DeBellis was also settled for $20,000. Dwight Ellis was arrested Oct. 18, 1982, on charges of burglary, which prosecutors dropped. Medical reports showed Ellis was knocked unconscious after being struck repeatedly.

DeBellis denied wrongdoing in all the cases. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Zaffino has also been involved in lawsuits. Earlier this year, the city agreed to pay $49,000 to Louise Hockel, 54, of the Northeast, who said Zaffino punched her in the face after she complained that he trampled her flower garden while chasing a suspect. Internal Affairs investigated the incident but did not sustain the complaint.

Last summer, the city also paid $180,000 to settle a 1992 suit by Robert Heim, a member of a Northeast Philadelphia Town Watch group, whom Zaffino struck with his patrol car while they were both chasing a suspect.

Detective Kenneth Rossiter first appeared on the 1993 list, with nine complaints - four of them sustained.

In a February 1990 complaint, the department found that Rossiter beat 17- year-old John Garvin of Tacony when he was stopped for riding in a stolen car.

Rossiter said the physical-abuse complaints were filed by suspects who were hurt when they resisted arrest, not by people who were abused.

"They were the people who wanted to fight, and lost the fight," he said.

Shortly after Garvin filed his complaint, Rossiter was promoted to detective.

Rossiter said he - like many officers - was on the at-risk list only

because he was an active officer.

"When a radio call goes out, they're not going to be the ones sitting at Dunkin' Donuts," he said.

Although the Police Department and the FOP agree some sort of policy is needed to identify problem officers, it is clear there won't be one as long as both sides are locked in an arbitration dispute.

Thomas W. Jennings, an FOP attorney, said the department's explanations about the at-risk list had an Alice in Wonderland quality.

Jennings said that despite the city's contention that no formal "at-risk" policy existed, the list was being used.

"De facto is just as important as de jure. A rose is a rose is a rose," he said.

One former Internal Affairs investigator said the division regularly used the at-risk list. He said the list was an important tool, alerting supervisors to pay special attention to potentially troublesome officers.

"It was a confidential list. . . . It was made available only on a need- to-know basis," said the former investigator, who left the department earlier this year.

"If a complaint came in, the first thing you were supposed to do is check the list," said the investigator, who asked that his name not be used.

Police Commissioner Richard Neal declined to comment for this story. In an October interview, he said that the department needed an at-risk policy but that the labor dispute with the FOP was standing in its way.

Some city defense lawyers are licking their chops at the notion that a list of at-risk officers exists.

"If I had the list, I'd use it in suing the city and as a defense lawyer to challenge the credibility of police," said attorney Jules Epstein, who has been active in civil-rights lawsuits and criminal defense work.

Many police policy specialists say a policy to identify "at-risk" employees is important for the department to develop.

Other cities have developed early-warning programs to identify problem officers and provide them with professional counseling. Los Angeles is implementing a computerized system to which all supervisors will have access, according to Cliff Ruff, president of the Los Angeles police union.

A 1992 study commissioned by the Philadelphia department also urged the creation of a policy to track problem officers. Bill Smith, a former city police officer who wrote the report, said his study group placed "great emphasis on the importance of being able to track high-risk officers . . .

because it is critical."

The FOP says it would support developing an at-risk policy, but the union must have a say in its formulation.

"We're not opposed to the concept at all, not in the least," Jennings said. "There are bad cops and we are not out to protect bad cops."

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