Deptford video shows alleged police beating

Posted: June 25, 2007

A burly police officer leans into the back seat of a police car, where a skinny 19-year-old sits, handcuffed, accused of running a stop sign.

The teen had just muttered an obscenity.

"You got something to say? You got something to say?" the officer demands loudly, at least eight times.

Soon the two are thrashing about in the back seat as a second police officer nervously paces outside. When one of the teen's feet appears to kick at the officer, the second officer moves in. Finally, both officers struggle with the man, who erupts in a fury of loud wails, groans and a quivering voice begging, "Stop."

The 14-minute videotape of the Deptford Township police officers' encounter with a Philadelphia motorist was captured by video cameras mounted on the dashboards of two township police cars.

And it is the centerpiece of a police-brutality trial expected to begin this week before a jury in state Superior Court in Gloucester County.

Dashboard cameras in police cars, which supporters say guard against police abuse and baseless claims against officers, are proliferating in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and across the nation. Still, experts say it's rare for one of the cameras to capture police misconduct.

Only about one in five of the nation's police cruisers have dashboard cameras, according to Mike Fergus, who studies patrol car cameras for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

In 2004, when the association surveyed police departments, New Jersey and Pennsylvania state police, along with many other state police agencies, had begun installing cameras in patrol vehicles, Fergus said.

City and municipal departments, however, have lagged in installing the cameras, which cost $4,500 to $6,500 each.

That's rapidly changing, Fergus said, opening the world of police officers to the eyes of the world.

"Videotape, assuming it's authentic, is the most powerful evidence you can have," said Harold J. Ruvoldt, a former North Jersey prosecutor who sometimes defends police officers in his private practice.

Pennsylvania State Police installed cameras in all patrol cars two years ago. New Jersey State Police equipped all patrol vehicles with cameras in 2000 to settle a U.S. Justice Department probe of alleged racial profiling.

Many local police departments, including Deptford Township, also have embraced cameras.

Deptford Police Chief John Marolt said he was offended by what he saw on the video of the traffic stop that led to the charges against his officers. He said it was the first time in his 27 years with the police force that he had witnessed excessive force used by police in his 71-member department.

Deptford Patrolmen John Gillespie and Timothy Parks are charged with official misconduct and aggravated assault. They are accused of punching, kicking and choking Joseph A. Rao, of the 1500 block of South Broad Street.

Rao was treated at a hospital for bruises, cuts and a possible jaw fracture. He was charged with resisting arrest and traffic offenses, but prosecutors later dropped the charges. Rao has filed a notice that he intends to sue the officers and Deptford Township police for more than $1 million, saying he suffered "severe physical, emotional, and psychological damage."

The videotape begins as Gillespie flips on his emergency lights and pulls Rao over. Rao rummages for his driver's license and mutters that he doesn't know why he was stopped. Gillespie orders him out of the car. When Rao protests, Gillespie pulls him out and presses him against the hood of the police cruiser.

As Gillespie frisks him and looks through his car, Rao begins objecting and asserting he has rights. The two begin arguing loudly with a volley of expletives.

Gillespie turns toward the camera and announces that Rao is being "disorderly" and is "resisting arrest." He tells Rao that everything is on tape and that nothing improper has happened.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the case interpret the video differently.

Prosecutors say Rao clearly was being beaten by the officers. The defense says Rao was unruly, kicking at the head and groin of the two officers, who were merely trying to restrain him.

At one point, a white object flies at Gillespie. Gillespie's defense lawyer, Ron Helmer, says the object is Rao's sneaker. He says an enhancement of the videotape, which he plans to introduce at trial, clearly shows the kick.

Gillespie's trial will be held first. Parks' trial is scheduled for next month. A third officer, Patrolman Brian Green, is accused of lying to investigators about what he saw at the police station, where authorities said there was another round of violence. All three officers have been suspended without pay.

Since the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles 16 years ago, caught on video by a bystander, civil-rights activists have clamored for the cameras in police cruisers. Progress has been hampered by costs and resistance from police.

Last month, Los Angeles police announced a $5 million plan to put dashboard cameras in 300 police vehicles. Eventually, the department wants to spend $25 million to put cameras in all 1,200 patrol cars.

Last year, the Chicago Police Department began installing patrol car cameras.

Philadelphia has no such plan.

The city has no shortage of justification. In 2000, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, a TV news helicopter recorded police officers pummeling and kicking carjack suspect Thomas Jones. Fourteen officers were later suspended.

Capt. Ben Naish, a Philadelphia police spokesman, said that the department has no plans to equip patrol cars with cameras, mainly because of the cost.

"We work on a limited budget and have to set priorities," he said.


Contact Staff Writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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