South Street sidewalk artist drew overzealous cop

Posted: March 06, 2012

It was a typical summer Saturday night on South Street, filled with shoppers and revelers and at least one artistic woman drawing vivid, hippy patterns on the sidewalk with chalk.

The artist, Emily Hamilton Epstein, wasn't doing anything wrong on June 19, 2010, when Police Officer William J. Gress came around, her attorney told the Daily News.

"She hadn't done anything wrong and we're very concerned about an officer who's arresting people for activities that clearly aren't illegal," Paul Messing said. "The city needs to do something."

According to a federal civil-rights complaint filed this week, Hamilton Epstein, of New York, was given permission to draw on the sidewalk by a property owner near 4th and South streets. Onlookers - even some fellow officers - commended her on the abstract shapes and colors she created with her water-soluble chalk, the complaint said, but when Gress approached at 9 p.m., he ordered her to stop.

Gress arrested Hamilton Epstein, putting her in "tight" handcuffs and charging her with obstructing the highway, the complaint alleged. She was later found not guilty.

The City Solicitor's Office hadn't been served with the lawsuit as of yesterday, but it's well-aware of Gress.

"He's been named in some suits," said Chief Deputy City Solicitor Craig Straw.

In January, the city reached a $30,000 settlement with Ebony Harris, a New Jersey resident, who claimed that Gress had "violently manhandled" her, breaking her nose and spraining her wrist outside Fat Tuesday's on Aug. 7, 2010.

Gress, according to Harris' federal complaint, had spit on her and arrested her and her boyfriend. Harris pleaded not guilty and wasn't prosecuted.

In another suit, Beverly Henderson, then a senior at Temple University, said Gress ordered her group to move away form 3rd and South, where a large group had gathered, on May 9, 2009. Henderson, according to her complaint, claimed that Gress charged her, tore her blouse and slammed her against a gated storefront. She was charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and other charges and later wss found not guilty. Her civil case is still pending.

Gress, who's assigned to the 3rd District, in South Philadelphia, has been sued over the arrests of a man putting fliers on windshields along South Street; of two women asked to move along near 4th and South, and of a New Jersey man celebrating his 21st birthday with his parents, relatives and friends in June 2007.

According to that federal complaint, Jason Herbert said that Gress smacked a Fat Tuesday's cup out of his hand outside after the bar had closed. After Herbert showed his ID, he claims Gress knocked his baseball cap off, put a forearm against his throat, pinned him against a bus and started choking him. Herbert then claimed Gress and other officers kicked and beat him while he was handcuffed on the ground.

All of the above lawsuits were filed after the City Paper published a story that focused on Gress' South Street tactics. A few others were filed before the story ran, too.

Contact Jason Nark at 215-854-5916 or narkj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jasonnark.

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