Officer under investigation hopes to open charter school

Posted: September 25, 2012

Thomas Tolstoy, one of five Philadelphia narcotics field officers at the center of a 2009 corruption scandal and ongoing federal investigation into allegations of planted evidence, illegal searches, and theft, is planning to open a charter high school for aspiring police officers.

Tolstoy's online LinkedIn profile lists him as chief executive officer for the Public Safety Charter School, which is described as "on its way to being an innovative charter school that serves high school students who wish to pursue a career in the public safety sector," include firefighting and other related careers.

Tolstoy did not return several requests for comment.

Russell Kolins, a Center City security consultant who identified himself as president of the Public Safety Charter School's board of directors, said the project was a year in the making. Kolins said the group planning the school has held meetings with charter school representatives, architects, and police officials.

"We've done our homework," Kolins said. "This is one of the best ideas for education in Philadelphia in a long time. And to me, it's going to end up being probably one of the best specialized schools in the city."

In addition to being the subject of a high-profile corruption investigation, Tolstoy has been accused of groping or sexually assaulting several women while conducting searches of their homes.

Asked if the allegations that have been made against Tolstoy could have an impact on potential donors or fund-raising efforts, Kolins said the accusations were false.

"Everybody who knows Tom Tolstoy knows that he's one of the most ethical, qualified police officers in the Philadelphia Police Department," Kolins said.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 5, said the project - and Tolstoy - have the union's full support.

Tolstoy "has done a lot of work on it, which is commendable," he said. "We're going to do anything we can to help him."

The school, which Kolins said was Tolstoy's concept, has not applied for a charter through the Philadelphia School District, and spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district's charter office had not heard of the school. The School Reform Commission has not acted on applications for new charter schools for four years.

Kolins said the project has attracted interest from experienced public school teachers, parents of prospective students, and legal experts, including former District Attorney Lynn Abraham, who has attended several planning meetings.

"Anything that will get and keep children in school until graduation is a win-win for all, and a great boon to this city," Abraham said in an e-mail. Abraham is cofounder of the I-Lead Charter School in Reading, Pa.

It's not clear when Tolstoy and the others hope to open the school, or how Tolstoy would balance his leadership role with his police job, but Tolstoy is soliciting donations. In a recent e-mail sent to local parents groups, Tolstoy asked recipients to spread the word about a "Future Protectors Leadership fund-raiser," a 5K run/walk in the Northeast on Sunday.

On websites, the school is given this description: "This career stoking organization has a staff of experienced professionals in the academic, legal and public safety fields that will teach high school students courses in public safety, ranging from crime scene investigations to mock trial competitions."

The school also has "partnered with public safety agencies throughout the Delaware Valley" to provide internships and field trips, according to the website.

"We've spent scores of hours putting this into place," Kolins said. "It's going to teach kids not only the basics of public safety fields, but also leadership skills."

Kolins said there was great demand for a school with a public safety focus, and said parents have already asked about enrolling their children. He declined to say how much money had been raised.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Tolstoy has a degree in public administration from Regis University, a Colorado-based college that offers online degree programs. Kolins said Tolstoy's studies inspired him to come up with the idea for the school.

Tolstoy, 38, has been with the Police Department since 1999. He and four other officers in the Narcotics Field Unit have been assigned to desk duty since 2009, pending the outcome of the FBI-led investigation into the squad. None of the officers has been charged.

Tolstoy and the others under investigation were spotlighted in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series published by the Philadelphia Daily News in 2009. The articles were based in part on interviews with a former confidential informant who said he and narcotics Officer Jeffrey Cujdik sometimes falsified information about drug suspects to get search warrants.

After the allegations, several bodega owners contended that members of the narcotics squad, including Cujdik and Tolstoy, had raided their stores, disabled security cameras, and stolen money and merchandise. The Daily News also interviewed three women who said Tolstoy had groped or sexually assaulted them during police searches of their homes.

Cujdik has denied the allegations through an attorney. McNesby has defended the officers as innocent.

The allegations threw into question some arrests that were made by Cujdik, resulting in charges being dropped against some defendants.

Numerous federal civil-rights lawsuits also were filed by people who said the squad had abused or framed them.

The city has paid about $1 million in settlements involving Tolstoy and the other officers who worked with him. One of the settlements involved the case of Lady Gonzalez, who contended that Tolstoy groped her during a drug search.

The federal investigation, meanwhile, has continued for more than three years. Some of the attorneys who filed lawsuits say their clients have not been asked to testify before a grand jury or even interviewed by authorities.

Kolins noted that Tolstoy has not been charged or disciplined. "When something is wrong with a police officer, that person gets charged. That person gets fired," he said. "And that has not happened."

In any event, Kolins said, "the school is not about Tom Tolstoy. This is about giving kids a good opportunity."


Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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