Driver testifies that Deptford officers beat him

Posted: June 28, 2007

A South Philadelphia motorist at the center of a Deptford Township police brutality case testified today that two police officers "were playing tug of war with me" as they beat him in the back seat of a police car.

Joseph A. Rao, 19, nervously told a State Superior Court jury in Gloucester County how he struggled with two police officers after he was stopped Feb. 2, 2006, for allegedly running a stop sign.

After the officers handcuffed him and put him into the police car, he said, two officers dived in and attacked.

"They were playing tug of war with me, and I was getting beat out by both of them," said Rao.

Patrolman John Gillespie, a three-year veteran, is on trial on charges of aggravated assault and official misconduct. Two other officers also are accused in the case and will be put on trial separately.

Rao, of the 1500 block of South Broad Street, admitted cursing the officers and calling them "pigs." Under harsh cross-examination, he held to his story that the officers pummeled him as he was handcuffed.

Much of the confrontation was recorded by video cameras on the police car dashboards and was shown to jurors.

Lawyers said the crucial scene is less than one minute of the 14-minute recording - a grainy passage in which the handcuffed Rao curses the police and Gillespie leans into the back seat, repeatedly yelling, "What did you say?" Rao screams and wails and, when Gillespie moves away, the suspect launches a kick.

Rao initially denied kicking the officer, saying he was "wriggling" as he was being attacked. Later, after being shown the video, he acknowledged kicking to defend himself.

"I'm human - I got confused," Rao said under questioning by defense lawyer Ron Helmer.

After the kick, the video shows two officers struggling to pull Rao out of the police car as Rao screams for them to stop.

Rao has filed a notice that he intends to sue Deptford Township for $1 million. He testified today that his arrest sent him to the hospital with a concussion and bruises.

The defense contends that the officers did not use excessive force and were merely restraining an unruly person.

Once he was taken to the police station, another confrontation erupted, according to testimony. Rao, who stands 5-foot-4 and weighs 122 pounds, said Gillespie, who towers over him, removed his handcuffs, asked another officer to leave the room, and challenged Rao to a fight.

Rao said he declined. He said Gillespie choked him and goaded, "C'mon pal, let's see what you're made of, what you got."

Rao acknowledged that during that confrontation he called Gillespie and other officers "pigs" and other insults.

"I had just gotten beat up and the words were flying around," he testified. "Nothing was going to help me at that point."

The jury trial, before Superior Court Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson, is scheduled to continue next week.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or

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