Suits: Philly police created bogus charges to arrest citizen observers

police
File photo. (Credit: Rikard Larma / Metro).

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on Wednesday filed two federal civil rights lawsuits against the city of Philadelphia and Philadelphia police on behalf of citizens who they claim were arrested on bogus charges after observing or videotaping officers in public.

“Police have extraordinary power in our society,” executive director of the ACLU-PA Reggie Shuford said in a statement.

“Citizens have the right to serve as a check on that power by observing and recording police officers in the course of their duties.”

According to one complaint, Community College of Philadelphia professor Alexine Fleck was arrested near her West Philadelphia in June 2011 for allegedly observing a police officer pointing to a semi-conscious man with a baton in an “unduly aggressive” manner.

She claims her arms were handcuffed behind her for three hours as she was held at a local police precinct.

“I believe we are all responsible for the community we live in,” Fleck said in a statement.

“I guess I paid for that belief by getting arrested, but I’d rather take my knocks than sit by and do nothing when I see something I think is wrong.”

The second suit involves former University of Cincinnati photojournalism student Coulter Loeb, who claims he was in July 2011 arrested and detained for an hour for photographing an encounter in Rittenhouse Square between a police officer and a homeless woman.

Fleck and Loeb were charged with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, respectively, both of which charges were soon dismissed in Community Court.

The legal actions are part of a series of suits the ACLU-PA has brought against Philadelphia police for allegedly manufacturing criminal charges to retaliate against those who observe or record their activity.

The first suit was filed in January on behalf of Philadelphia resident Christopher Montgomery, who claims he was taken into custody after using his cell phone to record an arrest.

Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission executive director Kelvyn Anderson said the oversight organization is also concerned about the way Philadelphia police officers treat citizen observers.

In fact, following the January lawsuit, the PAC sent the department a recommendation that it remind officers of a directive from Commissioner Charles Ramsey issued stating officers who are recorded in a public place do not have the right to interfere with those recording or confiscate their equipment.

“After the initial suit was filed, we had seen a couple of those complaints come through the commission, as well,” Anderson said.

“As a result, we have been playing close attention to a directive Commissioner Ramsey issued in November of 2011, hence the recommendation that perhaps some officers were not getting the message.”

The recommendation notes there were at least eight citizen complaints filed with the Internal Affairs Unit between 2011 and April 2012 in which people claimed they were retaliated for videotaping police.

It states six of those incidents occurred after the September directive.

“We haven’t heard anything official from [the department] on this recommendation, unfortunately,” Anderson said.

“I can only hope that the continuing exposure of the city to lawsuits around this issue will cause more attention to be paid to this issue. Obviously, the directive might not be enough to get the attention of everyone.”

The police department declined comment, citing the ongoing legislation. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday.



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