From hero to accused

FILE PHOTO
FILE PHOTO
Posted: June 21, 2013

WHO IS RICHARD DeCoatsworth?

Is he the hero cop who took a bullet for you or the junkie with the hair-trigger temper who beats up innocent civilians?

Is he the polite, deferential man of the public interviews, or the pill-popping, gun-waving rapist?

How dangerous is he and how did he get that way? Were red flags waving during his career that his supervisors didn't see or chose to ignore?

I've talked with the 27-year-old DeCoatsworth on several occasions, including an informal meeting in a coffee shop near his Port Richmond home, and a long, formal interview in the lobby bar of the Sheraton, formerly the Franklin Plaza. His partner, Robbi Huff, was at the second interview, the purpose of which was to get DeCoatsworth's side of a run-in with Marc Lamont Hill, a car stop that led to a lawsuit and a $15,000 out-of-court settlement.

DeCoatsworth told me he wanted to testify and felt betrayed by the city, the Philadelphia Police Department and the media.

That seems small potatoes, given where he is today - held on a logic-defying $60 million bail, facing charges of rape, sexual assault, human trafficking, intent to deal drugs and witness intimidation.

Somewhere, bravery appeared to turn into abuse.

Being locked up is the nadir for a man whose zenith was sitting next to Michelle Obama during the 2009 State of the Union address. Did that inflame a superheated ego, make him feel invincible?

The DeCoatsworth story doesn't end with his arrest, but it started Aug. 14, 2006, when he entered the Police Academy. Before graduation Feb. 12, 2007, DeCoatsworth reportedly assaulted a dry cleaner for ruining an article of clothing. Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson ignored recommendations by his deputy commissioners to fire him.

Johnson told me he was told that DeCoatsworth didn't beat the cleaner who called police, who did not arrest DeCoatsworth. There is a videotape of the incident, but police wouldn't let me see it.

Johnson said he didn't regard the incident as a firing offense. Did early leniency teach DeCoatsworth the wrong lesson?

A few months after graduation, DeCoatsworth took a shotgun blast to the face during a car stop, then chased the suspect for three blocks before collapsing. Instantly, the half-Irish, half-Puerto Rican rookie became Philadelphia's hero cop.

It was an unexpected turn for a kid who was a C student at Benjamin Franklin High. "I should have done better, but I didn't apply myself," he told me in an interview last year.

After graduation, he majored in criminal justice at Lynn University in Boca Raton, where he had family. He did two semesters, then dropped out. "In my youthfulness," he said ruefully, "I felt school was not for me."

He returned to Philly and signed up to become a cop.

In conversations with DeCoatsworth, he was well-spoken, unfailingly polite and respectful. After writing about him, I heard about his alleged other side from people in the community who saw him as a bully.

One middle-age African-American man came into my office and burst into tears as he told me of constant street harassment by DeCoatsworth and the department's lack of action when he reported it. He offered me the names of three witnesses who turned to smoke when I reached out to them, probably fearing retaliation.

I felt that a column based on one man's account would be weak and unfair. Maybe I was wrong.

DeCoatsworth amassed eight citizen complaints during his five-year police career, but Internal Affairs upheld none, even though two were followed by lawsuits settled by the city. He shot two men in separate 2009 incidents.

No red flags there? Didn't eight citizen complaints ring an alarm, a warning buzzer, something?

"I don't think it's anything substantial," I was told by FOP president John McNesby. "The officers are out there doing the job and they're getting frivolous complaints," McNesby growled.

Not surprisingly, DeCoatsworth agreed.

"Any good cop who's not scared to get their hands dirty and their boots muddy," said DeCoatsworth in our August 2011 conversation, "and being proactive, not just responding, but trying to prevent crime, they will draw complaints. They're going to get people that don't like them."

If you "want a peaceful and clean and pretty job, you should have been a florist," he said.

"Have I had to raise my voice at people? Yes. Have I had to physically restrain people and use force against people? Yes. That's part of police work. We live in the city of Philadelphia. It's a rough town," he said.

"Have I used curse words, too? Absolutely. I'm not scared to say that. OK? I'm a good cop, I'm a respectable cop, I follow the rules."

But did he?

I obtained DeCoatsworth's complaint file, which shows Internal Affairs investigations. Often witnesses won't talk to IA, thinking that it's just another arm of an untrustworthy police department. The words "unfounded," "not sustained" and "exonerated" are written into the files, rolling forward the belief that cops can't be trusted to investigate themselves.

I asked Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey if warning signs about DeCoatsworth might have been missed.

"It's possible," he told me. "Hindsight lets you see a lot of things clear."

He said, "There were indications he had trouble controlling his temper," and the department could have provided more help, "but people have to be willing to help themselves, too."

Ramsey said, "I don't know if his injury had a damn thing to do with what he got charged with, I'm not a psychologist," but if DeCoatsworth is convicted "he should receive a long prison term."

So the hero cop is the ex-cop, the accused drug-dealing rapist. That's who Richard DeCoatsworth is now.

Had someone, somehow, stopped him earlier, maybe it wouldn't have come to this.

DN Members only: View this time line of DeCoatsworth's rise and fall.


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

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