ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Savage beatings, stolen drug money, and a six-year criminal conspiracy - those are the allegations that federal prosecutors in Philadelphia laid out against six men. And while you could call it organized crime, the accused are not gang members. They're members of the police department - all seasoned officers in the narcotics field unit. Here is what Philadelphia's Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said of the case against members of his own department.
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CHARLES RAMSEY: I can say that I've been a police officer for more than 40 years, and this is one of the worst cases of corruption that I have ever heard.
RATH: The officers charged in the case say they are, in fact, innocent. For more on the case we're joined by Jeremy Roebuck. He's a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. So first of all, could you lay out some of the allegations against these officers?
JEREMY ROEBUCK: Yeah, the indictment that the federal prosecutors unsealed is pretty outstanding in the breadth and scope of the allegations that were included in there - accusations that some of these officers were hanging people over balconies, savagely beating some drug defendants. And the overall scheme that was alleged was that these narcotics cops were beating and targeting drug dealers, stealing their money, and then fabricating police reports, kind of to cover up their crimes - confident in the belief that because, you know, they were cops, no one would take a drug dealer's word over theirs, if anyone came forward to speak out against them.
RATH: And even selling the drugs themselves, right?
ROEBUCK: Yeah, in one case mentioned in the indictment, one of the police officers is accused of setting up a deal with his nephew I believe, ripping drugs off from a drug dealer, turning around, selling it on the street and splitting up the proceeds with other officers on the force.
RATH: Now, according to prosecutors, the activity was going on for at least six years. This is covering 2006 to 2012. Why were they able to get away with it for so long?
ROEBUCK: Well, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, here in Philadelphia, has pointed to the fact that because of the city's contract with officers, he was not able to transfer them out of any particular units without something like an indictment or criminal charges being filed. It's just so difficult to move a problem officer out of the way, he said. There are signs, though, that for years these guys have been known to be problems, including multiple internal affairs investigations, multiple FBI investigations, and for whatever reason, this was the case that they felt they were able to get them on.
RATH: Yeah, and there is a striking line in one of your pieces. You were writing about how even in the face of allegations and lawsuits that cost the city's hundreds of thousands of dollars, the police department, and quoting from your article here, didn't fire them - it didn't even transfer them. Internal affairs investigations cleared them again and again. How did these guys stay in their jobs, even while this investigation was going on?
ROEBUCK: Well, you know, and in one sense we take the commissioner - you know, we respect what he said and his reasons. But, you know, there are signs that there was some hesitancy to even act, should he have the ability to do so.
One of the officers is accused in the indictment of attacking a drug suspect, beating him on the back of his head with a steel bar. But we learned just this week that the police commissioner actually commended him and several other officers from the unit on that specific raid. Obviously not for the violence mentioned in the indictment, but it does raise questions about what the commissioner knew about what these guys were up to and when.
RATH: This is not the first time the Philadelphia Police Department has faced allegations of corruption. Is it fair to ask why Philadelphia has struggled so much to get rid of dirty cops?
ROEBUCK: It's a fair question. And Commissioner Ramsey here has an interesting response. He answered to a very similar question - you know, we could not chase down the bad apples in our department at all and you would never hear about these corruption cases. The fact that you're hearing about these corruption cases suggests that we're aggressively trying to weed out the bad elements in the department.
RATH: As a reporter, do you buy that?
ROEBUCK: To some degree yes, to some degree no. You know, I see his point. But at the same time, there clearly is a problem. I mean there's a culture where we've seen in a number of cases over the years dating back decades, of various squads of narcotics officers and other groups on the force just running into problems, whether they were raiding bodegas or whether they're ripping off drug dealers, as alleged in this indictment.
RATH: That's Jeremy Roebuck, He's a reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer. And he joined us from member station, WHYY. Jeremy, thanks very much.
ROEBUCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.