Elmer Smith: The cops, the Rep. and the 'unlawful use of force'

Rep. Jewell Williams, who brought a suit against cops who he says were abusive when he asked about their actions during an arrest of two others.
Rep. Jewell Williams, who brought a suit against cops who he says were abusive when he asked about their actions during an arrest of two others.
Posted: October 15, 2010

THE COPS didn't care who Jewell Williams was when they tightened the cuffs around his wrists and threw him into the back of a police cruiser.

They didn't care that he had been trained at the same police academy that they graduated from. Or that, as a Temple University policeman, he had patrolled the same North Philadelphia streets they were patrolling.

They knew he was a state representative. But that didn't keep them from rousting him like a common criminal for daring to question their authority.

He dared to raise that question again this week when he hauled the city into court to answer for what his lawsuit calls "the unlawful use of force" against him and co-plaintiffs John Cornish and Carl Cutler in a 2009 incident.

"My civil rights were violated as a person, not as an elected official," Williams told me. "So we're back to me just being a man."

I asked if he had considered what effect his suit might have on his expected run for the sheriff's office next year.

"I wasn't running for re-election at the time, and I wasn't a candidate for any other office," he told me. "My actions are based on my lawyer's advice."

Williams was driving home on March 28, 2009, when traffic ground to a halt in the 1600 block of York Street because police had made a car stop. Williams said he saw Officer Thomas Schaffling order Cornish and Cutler out of a Volvo. Schaffling grabbed Cornish, "frisked him roughly" and took a large wad of cash from his pockets, the suit alleges.

A day after the incident, Williams told me that Schaffling had tossed the wad of money on the car, allowing most of it to blow into the streets. Onlookers started pocketing the money, Williams recalled.

But he said he remained in his car despite growing concern about the way the men were manhandled, particularly Cornish, who seemed elderly and frail. He said he didn't get out and stand next to his car until he heard someone say "hospital."

"I kept my distance," he told me. "I know better than to interfere with police.

"But when Officer [Timothy] Devlin walked back to where I was, I said, 'Excuse me, officer, I'm Rep. Jewell Williams. Is everything OK?'

"Next thing I know, I'm handcuffed and curled up in the back of the police car. I could see my back yard from where I was. . . . I couldn't even help myself."

All three were released without charges, but not before Cornish had lost more than $700, and not before a helpless Williams got to see how citizens sometimes end up in custody for no good reason.

Police said the Volvo fit the description of a car whose driver was seen seen making a drug buy that day. But they arrested Cornish and Cutler even after a thorough search turned up no drugs on them or in the car.

And Devlin manhandled Williams in what he has described as a profanity-laced tirade, even before he asked to speak with Devlin's superior, Sgt. Kevin Bernard, who was at the scene.

The suit names the city, Sgt. Bernard and officers Donna Stewart, Schaffling and Devlin.

Schaffling and Devlin have been named in a number of lawsuits. Six people say that they were injured in August 2008 as Schaffling and Devlin crashed a baby shower in search of suspects who weren't there.

Two weeks later, they pulled over two men who claim that Schaffling and Devlin pulled guns on them as they were on their way to church. Schaffling allegedly told the driver that he'd "blow your f------ head off."

Williams met with Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey after his arrest. It didn't matter.

"These cops have a history," Williams said yesterday. "I don't judge all cops because of what these few did."

He said he still has pain in his hand from the way he was cuffed, and gets anxious sometimes when he's behind a police car.

When that happens, it doesn't matter that he is a lawmaker, a former cop or, quite possibly, the next sheriff.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/smith

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