Who is policing the Phila. school police?

Aaron Wilson, stationed at Meade Elementary, was charged with theft and tampering with public records.
Aaron Wilson, stationed at Meade Elementary, was charged with theft and tampering with public records. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 16, 2011

On the first day of school in early September, Philadelphia School District police officer Janis Walke strode into the courtroom in uniform, then waited to hear when her case would come up.

She wasn't there to testify against a student - it was Walke herself who was in trouble. On Aug. 3, she had been arrested for purchasing crack cocaine, court records show.

And it wasn't the first time. Walke also had been arrested for crack possession in May 2008, pleaded no contest, and was put in a program called "probation without verdict," reserved for people who admit they are drug-dependent and present evidence of dependency in court.

Four months after her arrest - and only a month after she was put on probation in August 2008 - she became one of the school district's newest police officers. Under school policy, she wasn't tested for drug use.

Her case is by no means an aberration for the school police, an unarmed force of 386 full-time and 50 per diem officers who are hired by the school district's human resources department and operate independently of city police.

Record checks conducted by The Inquirer turned up more than a dozen school police officers who have been arrested on drug, assault, theft, and other charges in recent years - either before they were employed by the district or while they were on active duty.

One case involved assault by motor vehicle by an officer - still working for the district - who was charged with "knowingly, intentionally, and recklessly" driving a car into a man's leg, "causing bruising requiring medical treatment," according to court records.

In another instance, which did not result in arrest, a uniformed officer was spotted on surveillance video swiping Naked orange juice and frosted Entenmann's chocolate doughnuts from a Roxborough Wawa while he was supposed to be on duty at the local high school, according to an internal district document. The store agreed not to press charges if the items were returned.

Liam S. Boyle - a former officer who was hired despite a prior arrest for heroin possession - said it was easier to get a job as a school district policeman than to be hired at Walmart. A Walmart employee had flagged his previous arrest during the hiring process.

"I get the school district job. Yet I can't get the Walmart job?" he asked.

The caliber of school police officers is crucial as the district struggles to contain violence. The recent Inquirer series "Assault on Learning" reported that more than 30,000 serious incidents had taken place in the city's schools over five years and that on any given day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or became victims of other violent crimes.

Beginning this fall, school police have been given new authority to report crime in schools to district headquarters and city police, after the series showed many violent incidents were not being recorded. Previously, that responsibility largely had been assumed by principals.

Yet, school district records show that one of the officers identified by The Inquirer as having arrest records was brought up on disciplinary charges of ignoring reports of sexual assaults on students and another was called to account for a "security breach" for letting into the school an "irate man" who talked of attacking students with a gun.

In April, following the series, Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey spoke of the possibility of putting city police in some schools. "We can't ignore the fact that we have a problem, and we have to regain control of the schools," Ramsey said at the time.

But no plan has materialized, and the school force has been thinned - from 635 part- and full-time officers during the 2010-11 school year.

One reason the district often does not flag cases against its officers is that some of them, such as Boyle, have been put in a pretrial diversion program under the supervision of the probation department. Those cases are not considered convictions in the legal system.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said background checks turned up no record of convictions prior to hiring for Walke, Boyle, and most of the other officers that The Inquirer asked about.

But in response to The Inquirer's questions, the district has launched an investigation into one current officer who had an outstanding bench warrant until Friday for his arrest and reviews of the cases of two other current officers with arrest records.

State Sen. Jeff Piccola, a Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee and sponsored a new law that tightens background checks for school employees, was stunned at the cases uncovered by The Inquirer.

"In this job market, you would think with 9 percent unemployment ... they could find people who didn't have serious criminal backgrounds," he said.

Of Walke, he said: "A woman like that should not be anywhere near a child." And of Boyle, he said: "Walmart standards are higher than the Philadelphia school district's. Walmart should have given him a second chance."

Elsewhere in the country, school police - many of whom are fully commissioned police officers - have to meet far more stringent standards than in Philadelphia, where officers aren't required to undergo drug or psychological screenings. In Houston, candidates for the armed school police force also have to take lie-detector tests and face inquiries to family members and neighbors about their personal backgrounds. That's in addition to an exhaustive criminal background check.

"We go all the way back into their lives for about 10 years and see what they have done and try to determine whether or not they will be successful as a police officer . . . working in a campus environment," said Jimmie Dotson, chief of the Houston Independent School District police department.

In Philadelphia, officers undergo Federal Bureau of Investigation, child abuse, and state criminal background checks, said Andrew Rosen, of the district's human resources office. But the district looks only at convictions when hiring - not arrests - and may still go ahead and employ the applicant if the crime isn't cited as a disqualifier in the Pennsylvania School Code.

The code, a state law, covers the hiring of school employees and does not distinguish school police officers from teachers or janitors. As Boyle's case shows, they may be treated more leniently in Philadelphia than job-seekers in private industry.

Until October 2010, Philadelphia school police were not even required to report if they were arrested while on the force - and records show that several officers continued to work, even after facing probation or penalty for those arrests.

Once The Inquirer began asking questions, Myron Patterson - a Philadelphia police inspector on loan to the district to oversee the school force - sent out a directive, reinforcing a 2010 policy requiring officers to divulge arrests.

"This stoked us," Patterson said.

Patterson said he was pushing to institute mandatory drug testing for new hires - an issue that he said had to be worked out through the district's human resources department. But he does not see the need for psychological evaluations or increased training, noting that school police are unarmed and more like security guards. School police now get four weeks of training compared with 32 for city police.

He also noted many officers - though he couldn't cite a number - were retired city police officers.

Others differ with Patterson about hiring, screening, and training requirements.

Private studies - including one conducted by a state-hired consultant - have been critical of how prospective officers are screened for hiring and their subsequent training and conduct.

"We suggest the screening of candidates, job requirements, training, assessment, and supervision of school police officers be reevaluated," said Safe Havens, a Georgia security consulting firm that assessed school police operations in 25 of the district's most dangerous schools in spring 2010. "This issue is important enough to merit prompt attention at the district leadership level."

At seven of the schools, analysts observed officers "yelling at students, or aggressively challenging them for 'offenses' that were minor in nature and could have been dealt with more effectively through a calmer approach," according to the report.

Former schools safety chief James B. Golden said he advocated for officers to get the same training as city cops.

"Ultimately, the district ought to move to professionalize its school police force. We would have well-qualified, highly trained school police officers, short of carrying firearms," said Golden, whose five-plus year tenure ended in August 2010 when he was replaced by Patterson.

The officers' union president, Michael Lodise, also took a strong position. He said that there should be an upgrade in training and better screening of applicants.

"That's something we've been pushing for," Lodise said. Too often, applicants who should not be hired "slip through the cracks," he said. New hires should be both drug tested and given a psychological evaluation, much like regular law enforcement, he said.

"We have psychologists in the schools, yet we don't have one at [district headquarters] to evaluate new hires," he said.

Boyle also questioned why the district did no drug screening.

"I mention that because there were a few people in my training class that I was wondering about," he said. "It was kind of strange to me, considering that you're working with kids."

Boyle - whose last assignment was South Philadelphia High School, rocked by racial violence in 2009 - said his arrest for heroin possession came up on a records check when he applied for a job at Walmart. He didn't get hired.

When he interviewed with the school district, however, his arrest "never came up," he said.

"It did make me wonder," said Boyle, whose father, William J., is a retired city police officer and a current member of the school force.

Hearing of cases The Inquirer uncovered - some of which occurred during his tenure - Golden said school police leaders should play a greater role in hiring.

"There could have been, and probably should be going forward, a closer working relationship around the vetting of new school police officers," he said.

Patterson said that since he took over, the department has addressed many of the problems raised in the Safe Havens report. He emphasized that he added a disciplinary liaison to investigate and deal with complaints about officers and instituted leadership training for supervisors and a dress code and grooming guidelines for officers, among other changes.

"We have a strong hand on this and we're pushing forward," he said. "Our personnel know that their behavior is being scrutinized, and if it comes to our attention, they're going to have to answer for it."

On the front line

The school police force is on the front line when it comes to quelling violent offenses in district schools, 19 of which were graded by the state as "persistently dangerous" in the 2010-11 school year.

Though they do not carry guns, school police are empowered to subdue and detain students - including handcuffing them. They must deal with drug offenses and confiscate weapons.

Some of the officers whose names were flagged by The Inquirer have been stationed at schools deemed persistently dangerous, such as FitzSimons High, or that have been the scenes of large-scale disruption in recent years.

One officer who was eventually dismissed last May after compiling a string of arrests for drugs and illegal weapon possession - Jamil Watson - most recently worked at Martin Luther King High, a school with a long record of violence.

On one day alone in March 2011 - when Watson was still a police officer - the school had at least four fights, a fire, a 45-minute evacuation, and an hourlong lockdown when teachers and students were unable to leave their classrooms. All told, 24 students were suspended for fighting that day.

The Inquirer found that several of the officers such as Watson identified as having arrest records continued to have problems in their school jobs and became the subject of district discipline charges.

"He had a problem with authority," recalled Kristina Diviny, the former principal of King who is now principal of Christiana High School in Delaware.

In November 2010, Watson was suspended for two days and put on probation with the school police for a year for "insubordination and improper conduct," according to a district disciplinary letter.

Walke, 47, got in trouble at Rhodes High School, where she was stationed last spring, over a trip she planned to Hawaii. She was suspended for 10 days and placed on job probation for a year after the principal's signature was forged on the vacation request forms, according to school district documents.

The district investigation determined that a colleague, also a school police officer, had forged the signature, according to district disciplinary records.

Boyle, 30, was fired by the school district after about a year for absences and lateness, he said.

Then there is the case of former Roxborough High School officer Cornelius Dudley.

On Dec. 10, 2010, he was caught on surveillance video swiping items from the Wawa on Ridge Avenue, according to a district document obtained by The Inquirer.

But there were warning signs before that.

Dudley had been hired by the school district in November 2001, despite his previous arrest for the theft of a PGW vehicle. However, that charge was dismissed.

In 2009, he was arrested on a charge of marijuana possession and was suspended from the force. But the charge also was dismissed for lack of prosecution, and he was reinstated, court and school district records show.

Then came the Wawa incident, outlined in district documents. He was videotaped taking the orange juice and chocolate doughnuts, along with Red Bull, lemon/honey tea, iced tea, and a 6-ounce bag of pistachios - all worth $12.22.

(He did pay $3.44 for a Philadelphia Daily News and a sausage, egg, and cheese bagel.)

Not only did Dudley, 43, abandon his school post without authorization, according to the documents, but the situation also caused a school district police sergeant to have to go to the Wawa to handle the matter.

"He left the school and committed a criminal act in full uniform and placing the school district in an embarrassing situation," an internal district report on the incident said. "Officer Dudley could not give a reasonable answer for his actions."

Dudley, according to the documents, denied the theft and said he was going to his car to get money and took the items with him.

Amid a school district investigation into the incident, Dudley was arrested in February for possession of marijuana.

He resigned in March 2011 and agreed that he would not seek employment with the district again, according to a district record.

A few weeks later, court records show that he was placed in the SAM program (for Small Amount of Marijuana), which requires attendance at a drug-abuse class and the payment of a $200 fine.

Dudley declined comment.

Some officers who get in trouble with the law, however, get high marks from their superiors. Diviny, the former King principal, recalled the case of Galvinus Thompson, who she said was one of her better officers.

In 2006, Thompson shot and killed Kenneth Brokenborough, a city police officer who he believed raped his sister. Thompson was in uniform as a school cop at King the day before he killed Brokenborough, Diviny said. In 2007, he was sentenced to 11 to 22 years for third-degree murder.

Eligibility

To be eligible for employment as a school district police officer, applicants must be 21 and a high school graduate. They take written and oral tests to assess their ability to respond to emergency situations and gauge their general knowledge. Then, they are placed on an eligibility list based on their scores.

Pay for a full-time officer ranges from $33,065 to $51,507.

On the district application, they are asked if they have been convicted of a crime other than a traffic offense.

Applicants such as Boyle, who have been placed in a diversion program rather than going to trial, are able to answer "no" to this question. Walke did the same on her application, said Gallard.

After his arrest, Boyle's case was designated for the ARD program, the acronym for Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition. Many first-time offenders accused of nonviolent crimes such as drug possession, drunken driving or theft are put in the program, which has been extensively used by the Philadelphia court system for about 40 years as a way to lighten its heavy caseload.

Typically, people placed in ARD have to complete a rehabilitaton course under the supervision of the probation department and stay out of trouble for a length of time - a standard term is six months or a year. At that point, if they haven't gotten into further trouble, they are eligible to have their record expunged.

Defendants may also have to pay fines and court costs.

Boyle was arrested in 2008 on the heroin possession charge. He said he was driving a car with a group of his friends when a police officer pulled them over. Police found 0.12 grams of heroin in the search.

Boyle said the drugs weren't his, and he wanted to plead not guilty. But he said a public defender told him he would have little chance of beating the charge.

So he took an ARD agreement for first-time offenders, and he said he was told his record eventually would be expunged if he successfully completed probation.

He's disturbed that his arrest record is public.

"I was under the impression that it would be gone," he said.

Boyle said he heard about the school district police officer's job in 2009 from his father.

Once hired, he worked at Childs Elementary in 2009-10, then South Philadelphia High School that summer before being terminated in August 2010.

He said he believes he was a good employee.

Tommie Turner was similarly hired after going into the ARD program, records show. He began as a per diem officer in October 2007 despite the fact he had been charged with receiving stolen property a year earlier. Turner said he was driving a car with stolen tags, but said he was unaware of a problem with the plates.

Turner said he informed the school district about the arrest. On his application, he wrote that he had no convictions, Gallard said.

"They didn't even ask me about it. They were so short-handed," Turner said.

His training, he said, was abbreviated because the district wanted to deploy officers as quickly as possible. He worked at Clymer and Frederick Douglass elementary schools and Strawberry Mansion High.

In 2009, he was arrested on a cocaine-possession charge - which again he said was not his. He said he had loaned his car to a friend to move, and the friend had an addict help him.

The addict, Turner said, left a bag with white residue in his car on a day when he happened to be approached by a police officer. He had pulled over to call his girlfriend to see if they needed anything from the market, he said.

"I guess I was in a bad area," he said, surmising why the officer had approached. "To my surprise, there's the bag."

He pleaded no contest and received six months' probation.

Turner, who noted that he also has worked as a corrections officer, said he informed the school district that he had been arrested. He subsequently resigned because the district told him he could no longer work.

"I have a feeling if I didn't say anything," he said, "they never would have known."

A current school police officer - Aaron Wilson, 42 - was arrested by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office and charged with theft by false impression and tampering with public records in 2008. He was placed in the ARD program. A year later, he was hired by the school district as a police officer.

Reached at Meade Elementary School, where he is stationed, he declined to comment.

"I don't have nothing to say about nothing. All I know is who I am, and where I'm at," he said. "Whatever you found on me, sounds like you might be in the wrong area."

His lawyer, Kevin V. Mincey, confirmed that he had represented Wilson and that his client was a Philadelphia school police officer. He said he could not recall the precise circumstances of Wilson's case, but noted that the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, which prosecuted it in Dauphin County court, worked with him so that the incident "wouldn't ruin his life."

Gallard said the district is reviewing his case.

Unflagged cases

Cases such as those of Walke, Boyle, Turner, and Wilson - because they ended up in diversion programs or are low-level misdemeanors - typically would not be flagged by the criminal record and child abuse checks the school district requires.

Nor would they run afoul of state law - or a recent extension of it - that prohibits school districts from hiring anyone convicted of major crimes including homicide, aggravated assault, sexual assault, felony drug offenses, or endangering the welfare of children.

As the result of a law pushed through the legislature by Piccola, those parameters were broadened as of Sept. 28, which means it will be harder for someone with a criminal background to be eligible for employment in a school district.

Among the banned offenses are convictions for luring a child into a motor vehicle, unlawful contact with a minor or soliciting of a minor to traffic drugs.

School employees also cannot be convicted of other types of felony offenses within 10 years of their employment application or misdemeanor offenses of the first degree within five years.

The new regulations also require current and prospective employees to fill out a form by Dec. 27, listing any arrests or convictions that they have had for crimes covered by the provision. Employees who refuse to disclose crimes or arrests face discipline, including dismissal.

Rosen, the district's head of human resources, said if applicants are convicted of other crimes outside those proscribed by the school code, the district considers the position that the employee is seeking.

"For cops, we look if they have assault convictions, resisting arrest convictions . . . things like that because of the nature of the job in dealing with people and especially kids," he said. "Those are the kinds of things that might raise the antenna that this might not be the right job for this person."

Then, there is the matter of Jamil Watson, who used the alias of Jamil Styles. At King, Diviny - the former principal - said Watson called himself "the undercover brother," an apparent reference to a 2002 film of the same name chronicling the adventures of a secret agent.

He was hired by the district in September 2009 - after he had already been arrested by police at West Chester University. He pleaded guilty to a marijuana possession charge, receiving a year's probation. That was his second marijuana bust in Chester County - an earlier case resulted in 30 days' probation.

Watson, 24, got in trouble again in December 2009. During a traffic stop, police said he produced a driver's license that was "altered, forged or counterfeit," and fled the scene at a "high rate of speed."

Court records show that he was eventually caught and charged with reckless endangerment, fleeing officers, false identification, illegal possession of a firearm with the manufacturer's number altered, and criminal mischief for striking a parked car.

On June 28, he was found guilty on four counts, was sentenced to three years' probation, and ordered to pay $500 in restitution to the owner of the parked car, records show. The gun was ordered destroyed.

Two weeks earlier, Watson had failed to show up for a school district disciplinary hearing stemming from the December arrest. His grandmother attended and said Watson was in jail, according to a district source.

Watson was not present because he had been taken into custody on May 26 after his bail was revoked for failing to show up for a pre-sentence review, according to a district disciplinary letter. As a result, he missed work from May 27 through June 13.

It wasn't the first time he'd been absent from work without authorization - there were four other instances during the 2009-10 school year.

He was fired.

Firing policy

If a current employee is convicted of a crime, the district's general - but not absolute - policy is to fire him or her, Rosen said.

Pending the outcome of the case, the district does its own investigation and decides whether to suspend the employee, he said. If the incident occurs at work, the district acts immediately, he said.

A case in point is Officer Dana Baker, 31, who was suspended after she was arrested in March for criminal conspiracy, simple assault, and false imprisonment. Her trial is scheduled this month.

According to court records, Baker and her husband are accused of attacking a woman, who the police report describes as another "wife" of her husband. The victim suffered a swollen eye, a bite mark on her thumb, and red marks around her neck, the report said.

In hiring Baker, the district disregarded a prior 2000 arrest for theft and receiving stolen property in Montgomery County. She was placed in the ARD program, court records show.

Gallard said Baker noted on her application that she had a prior conviction, but was hired anyway.

While Baker was suspended, The Inquirer found that other officers continued on the job after being arrested.

One was Eugene Hall, who has worked at Strawberry Mansion and FitzSimons high schools and Bache Martin elementary, and has been arrested four times, most recently on Sept. 3 for marijuana possession. Previous charges of simple assault and reckless endangerment had been dropped.

He has been suspended for lateness and poor attendance, and has faced accusations of insubordination and falsification of district documents, district records show.

There was also a complaint of a "security breach" violation when he was an officer at FitzSimons, according to a disciplinary report.

An "irate male" was permitted to enter the school at the station where Hall was supposed to be on duty. The man was looking for a student who allegedly spit on him from a window, according to the report. The man told a school administrator "if I had a gun I would of went up there and took care of those bastards myself."

Hall, 46, was terminated last month, the district said.

In another case, Eric Cosby, 55, was charged with simple assault, reckless endangerment, and possession of an instrument of crime in 2008 after allegedly driving his car into someone. He "knowingly, intentionally, and recklessly caused bodily injury to complainant," court records said.

He was subsequently placed in the ARD program for a year and ordered to undergo anger management, records show.

Cosby, who was hired by the district in April 1995, did not return a written request for comment. He is based at H.R. Edmunds Elementary School.

When Cosby was at Cooke School in 2009, he also faced disciplinary action when he was accused of calling two female students a "bitch" and an "asshole" and of asking the guardian of one of the girls if she wanted to go on a date, according to internal school district records. He also allegedly made a derogatory comment and gesture to two teachers at Cooke.

At Smedley School, also in 2009, he was cited for "lateness, disrespectful behavior, creating a disruptive educational classroom environment, unprofessional demeanor, insubordination, creating a hostile work environment, impeding the progress of an investigation, impeding the reporting of a serious incident, and leaving the school premises without principal approval."

A Vietnam veteran, he asserted that he suffered from post traumatic stress, district documents said.

Gallard said the district was reviewing Cosby's case.

In one case, an officer who was wanted on a bench warrant continues to work in the district.

Edward Larkins, 55, was arrested on charges of marijuana possession in November 2010. An officer at Drew School, he has been employed in the district since 1993.

Larkins said he heard a disruption outside his home in the 3300 block of Hartville Street in Philadelphia and grabbed a friend's coat to run outside and check.

"I put on the wrong jacket, and unfortunately it had that substance," Larkins said in a telephone interview. "I just got jammed with it."

He said he did not inform the school district of the arrest. Court records show that he was placed in the SAM program.

In March 2011, a bench warrant for his arrest was issued by Municipal Court for failure to show up for the required SAM class or pay the $200 fine.

Larkins also had faced disciplinary problems while on the job. He got in trouble for lateness and was also brought up on charges that he failed to report allegations of sexual assaults on students to his supervisor on three occasions while working at Stetson Middle School in November 2003, internal district records show.

"We are in the middle of an investigation due to the active bench warrant and arrest that we did not know of," Gallard said.

Larkins was summoned to a conference Thursday, but was out sick. On Friday, the warrant was lifted.

Rejected plea deal

Her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her police officer emblem on her light blue shirt, Walke arrived in the courtroom after 10 a.m. on Sept. 6. School had started about three hours earlier.

She was there to answer to charges that she had been caught with crack cocaine on Aug. 3.

Rejecting a plea deal offered by the prosecution, she accepted her trial date.

Approached by a reporter, Walke declined to comment.

She had shown up in court in her uniform because she had reported to Rhodes that morning for duty, but learned that she was among 190 per diem officers who had been laid off, according to a district source.

But Walke remains on a list of active employees and could be called back.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com

 

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