Philadelphia police officers Sean McKnight and Kevin Robinson have been arrested and criminally charged after a videotape showed them pursuing Najee Rivera on a scooter. After they stop, the two officers get out and beat Rivera with their fists and batons. He was left with fractures in his orbital bones and lacerations.
Notably, it was Rivera’s girlfriend who tracked down the videotape that would make all the difference in the case.
The grand jury reported that “Throughout the entire encounter that is captured on the video, Rivera was wailing loudly and uncontrollably. Although he was moving around on the ground while being struck, he was not resisting the officers or engaging in any aggressive actions.”
Notably, the incident reported by the officers stands in sharp contrast to what is seen on the videotape. The grand jury reported:
This Grand Jury viewed a “75-48 Incident Report” filled out and signed by McKnight shortly after the incident. Detective James Brooks, of East Detective Division, testified that this is the initial document filled out by a police officer after an incident. Detective Brooks began work around midnight on May 30, 2013 and was assigned to investigate this incident. The “75- 48” filled out by McKnight states, in part, that “Abv compl [referring to Robinson] caught up to blw male [referring to Rivera]. The blw male then grabbed the abv compl and threw him into a brick wall at abv loc. Blw off [offender] then began to throw multiple elbows at abv compl then was attempting to push the abv compl’s face in to the same brick wall.” The Grand Jury determined that false and inaccurate description of the incident is directly refuted by the video.
Both officers then gave separate false statements to the Detective according to the grand jury:
Based upon that initial account provided by McKnight, Det. Brooks began his investigation by interviewing Robinson at 1:04 AM on May 30, 2013. Robinson told Det. Brooks in his statement that he attempted to stop Rivera for disregarding a stop sign at 7th and Cambria Streets. When Rivera pulled over and both officers exited their patrol car, Rivera fled the scene. Robinson stated that “[a]pprox. 5-10 minutes later, we observed this Hispanic male on the scooter driving E/B on Lehigh Ave from 7th Street…The scooter then drove the wrong way N/B on 2700 6th Street.” Robinson told Det. Brooks that both officers “observed the Hispanic male lose control of the scooter and fall to the ground.” He further stated that he “caught up with the male quickly and grabbed a hold of him at which time he was able to turn around and grab a hold of me, slamming me against a brick wall building. I struggled to gain control of him for he had a hold of my upper chest neck area and was repeatedly throwing elbows at me.” Despite those claims being false and inaccurate, Robinson reviewed and signed this statement. The Grand Jury determined that the above statement is proved false by the video of the incident.
At 4:15 AM, Det. Brooks took a written statement from McKnight in which he said the following:
“I observed the male losing control and falling to the ground. We pulled up and at that point the Hispanic male stood up held his head with his left hand and attempted to run. We ran about 15-20 feet when my partner was able to catch up to him. I was approx. 10-12 feet back when this happened. While running towards my partner I saw the Hispanic male grab my partner with both his hands by his chest upper vest area and slammed him into a brick wall of the building. The Hispanic male held my partner up against the wall and began throwing elbows towards my partner’s face and head area. I don’t know if any of the elbows connected. Once I got to my partner and the Hispanic male I took my asp out and attempted to strike the male in his upper arm area. The male continued to resist and hold my partner against the wall. I continued to strike the male with my asp, myself and partner after about 1 minute were able to get this male to the ground. While on the ground the male refuse to show us his hands. Then male then reached up with his right hand and attempted to pull my asp out of my hand…I feared that the male may have had a weapon I struck him once with a closed asp in his face…”
McKnight reviewed and signed this false and inaccurate statement which is contradicted by the video.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is now promising to prosecute the officers to “fullest extent” possible. That would make a plea bargain more difficult for the defense counsel given the publicity and anger about the incident.
The importance of the videotape in this controversy cannot be overstated. It also shows why some prosecutors and police continue to seek criminal penalties for citizens filming them in public.
We have been following the continuing abuse of citizens who are detained or arrested for filming police in public. (For prior columns, click here and here). Despite consistent rulings upholding the right of citizens to film police in public, these abuses continue.
The video contradiction of the police account is all too familiar on this blog. Of course, in Dallas, Police Chief David Brown revealed a new policy that would require officers involved in a shooting to wait 72 hours before making a statement. The policy came after a scandal where a surveillance video showed one of Brown’s officers shooting a mentally ill suspect for no apparent reason. The video contradicted the officer’s testimony and undermined the charge against the victim. Brown’s solution was not greater disciplining and monitoring of officers but to impose a delay to allow officers to craft their statements.
Illinois has been a leading jurisdiction trying to prosecute citizens for videotaping police in public. Recently, the legislature made it a crime to secretly record police officers where at least one party (presumably the officer) had an expectation of privacy. This would probably not work in public settings but it shows the continued effort of Illinois prosecutors to curtail citizen recordings. Some of these recording have been used against police accused of abusive conduct.
Rivera, 23, was cleared of all charges and has been awarded a $200,000 settlement for pain and suffering. Notably, Robinson was accused of beating 28-year-old Darren Trammell during a 2013 arrest, but was cleared by the Internal Affairs department. However, the city dropped charges against Trammel and settled the case for $125,000.
Police Chief Charles Ramsey told reporters that the case “is painful, it is embarrassing” for the department. For the record, Ramsey is a named defendant accused of abusive arrests in the World Bank/IMF protests in 2002, where hundreds were arrested without probable cause and “hogtied” by being cuffed ankle to wrist. I am co-lead counsel in the case which is set to go to trial in April in Washington D.C. The case stems from when Ramsey was Chief of Police in Washington.
Here is the grand jury report: Grand Jury Investigation