A team effort is arresting cop corruption

Commissioner Ramsey has taken a tough stance on corruption.
Commissioner Ramsey has taken a tough stance on corruption. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff photographer)
Posted: April 29, 2011

THE NUMBER is 26.

It's a small number, really, if you're talking about the price of a ticket to a Phillies game or lunch for two people downtown.

In this case, though, 26 is the number of Philadelphia police officers who have been led away in handcuffs during the past two years. All of a sudden, the number seems a hell of a lot bigger.

The total would seem to suggest either that the police force is more corrupt than ever or that Internal Affairs investigators, the FBI and the District Attorney's Office have gotten better at weeding out the department's bad apples.

But the truth, law-enforcement officials say, is a little more nuanced than that.

For one thing, corruption on the force has always been a problem.

"It's really not any worse nowadays," said John McNesby, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5.

"If you go back 10 years, or however long, you'd see about the same number."

The plethora of recent stories about cops' getting arrested could be a combination of factors, McNesby said, like "bad luck, bad timing and stupidity on the cops' part."

Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross, who previously oversaw Internal Affairs, said he didn't think the number of corrupt cops on the force is higher now than in the past.

"Like a lot of things, it sometimes comes in cycles," he said. "I don't believe that we have more of it now."

Publicly, the department's commitment to rooting out thugs with badges has seemed to rise as the negative headlines have piled up over the past two years.

Last summer, the partnership of the FBI and the Police Department's Corruption Task Force was made more formal, said John Roberts, the supervisory special agent of the FBI's Public Corruption Squad.

"Police corruption has always been a focus of ours, but it just seems that it's come to the forefront a bit more, especially since Commissioner [Charles] Ramsey has been here," Roberts said.

But the FBI has long had the department's cooperation, Roberts said, even though "it is awkward to be an outside agency coming in to investigate the alleged crimes of a police officer."

The joint task force, composed of four FBI agents and four police detectives, is always busy, and decides early on whether a cop's alleged crimes deserve local or federal prosecution.

"Some of the [cases] are quite shocking," Roberts said. "Last year, we had officers involved in the theft and sale of heroin while they were in uniform. It was mind-boggling."

Ramsey, meanwhile, has announced a number of moves aimed at boosting the public's confidence in the department's ability to rid itself of bad cops.

Last fall, he transferred 26 investigators to Internal Affairs, which had seen its ranks thin out in recent years because of attrition.

He has boosted the department's hiring standards - beginning next year, applicants will have to be at least 21 and have three years of driving experience and an associate's degree or 60 semester hours from an accredited college or university, with a minimum grade-point average of 2.0.

He has also required applicants to face a polygraph test - the practice was ended under his predecessor, Sylvester Johnson - and has put Internal Affairs detectives in charge of the Police Academy's background unit.

Ramsey's efforts have been aided by the FOP, which has come out forcefully against cops who are caught breaking the law.

"We've done away with business as usual. We're not going to represent drug dealers," McNesby said. "People have given their lives for that badge. I'll go to the wall for you if you're out there doing the job, but if you're corrupt, forget it."

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