How does a Pulitzer Prize stack up against the Police Department of Philadelphia? We found out the answer last week. And I can’t say I am shocked.
After years of investigation, no criminal charges were filed against Philadelphia narcotics officers who were accused of stealing from corner stores during raids five years ago.
The “Tainted Justice” series chronicled by Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman uncovered the alleged wrongdoing. Footage inside one of the stores showed an officer slicing the wires of a camera, before the officers allegedly robbed the store. There still has not been a good explanation why the officers cut the cameras. Owner after owner told Laker and Ruderman the same story. The raids were initiated because the store owners were selling little plastic baggies, that police consider drug paraphernalia. And then they were robbed.
Many lawsuits were filed after the stories ran. The city paid $1.7 million for 33 of the cases it settled, according to the Associated Press. But no disciplinary action has been taken, except that the cops have been on desk duty during this time.
Some police officers and Fraternal Order of Police officials claimed the newspapers were trying the officer’s in the press, and they call last week proof of their opinion.
I met Ruderman and Laker last year when they visited a crime reporting class at Rowan University where I studied journalism. The class is taught by George Anastasia, a former Philadelphia Inquirer crime reporter who covered organized crime.
The pair of journalists told many of their stories about covering the crime beat in Philly, captivating the students in the room, myself included. Eventually, they talked about the “Tainted Justice” series which earned them the 2010 Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
I didn’t see two biased cop-haters, as some police claim. I saw two women who cared about their city and wanted justice to take place for those without a voice.
I was outraged at the time, but now I am less than shocked at what I heard. If you read the headlines of police behaving badly in this country, as often as I do, you come to the conclusion there is almost a set playbook for police supervisors. It’s nearly the same story every time, a police officer is caught on tape doing something most of us find terrible. He then gets a paid vacation during the time of the investigation. And finally the officer is found to have acted properly, usually “officer safety” was a key factor in why the atrocious action was taken.
I have heard murmurings and seen the comments of open contempt online. There are two sets of rules in this country: those for cops and those for the rest of us. Some call our current justice system the “just-us” system, because there is only "us" left, the courts and cops are past the point of no return.
Ruderman and Laker are still waging that war to balance the scales of justice in this city. On Saturday, Ruderman was arguing against a cop-defender on Twitter.
He claimed her work was inaccurate and called her accomplishment the #TaintedPulitzer.
“People who get corrupted by power are unworthy of that power to begin with,” Ruderman Tweeted.
She went on to say. “I support good cops who far outweigh bad cops. Feds did not look into Dagma or Lady's story or bodegas. So nothing was ‘proven.’”
Journalism can only shine a light on wrongdoing, but without outrage, angry phone calls, and protests it’s likely nothing will be done about police corruption in Philadelphia, or anywhere for that matter.
The pen is only mightier than the sword if it causes people to act.
Turner is a columnist for Metro Philadelphia. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at email@example.com.