Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Psycho Cop, A Suspect's Face, And A Sizzling Car Hood

On the hot summer afternoon of July 31, 2000, Ronald Spencer was walking to the barber shop when Police Officer Frank Tepper got out of a car and ran after him screaming, "Omar, Omar," and "Black hat, black hat."

Spencer wasn't named Omar, but he was wearing a black hat.

"When I turned to him, he had a gun pointed at me," Spencer testified in federal court. Tepper wasn't in uniform, and he didn't identify himself as a police officer, Spencer told the jury, but he did ask to see Spencer's ID.

"When I didn't oblige, I got punched"in the face by Tepper, Spencer said. The next thing Spencer knew, he was thrown face-down on the sizzling hood of a car by three cops, one of whom had Spencer's arm twisted behind his back.

"My face was laid flat," Spencer testified. "The car was burning up. My flesh was burning. Every time I lifted my head up, Tepper gave me a punch" right in the face.

Spencer, now 31, testified about his ordeal as a witness for the plaintiffs in a civil suit against Tepper and the city of Philadelphia. The parents of Billy Panas, 21, of Port Richmond are suing for damages after Tepper pointed a gun at their unarmed son in 2009 and pulled the trigger, shooting him in the chest. Tepper, who was fired from the police department in 2010, was convicted Feb. 23 of the first-degree murder of Panas.

Spencer testified that the car's engine was running when he was thrown face-down on the hood. He said that four times he lifted his head, and four times Tepper punched him. When he finally was taken into custody, and allowed to lift his face off the car, "My skin was left on the car," he said.

When he looked at himself in a mirror and saw the scars on his forehead. "My skin wasn't there no more," he said.

Spencer said that Tepper and the other cops took him several blocks to see several detectives, who were looking for a murder suspect named Omar. The detectives told Officer Tepper and his colleagues that they had the wrong guy.

The cops took Spencer back to the lockup. They brought him out to see another bunch of detectives who looked him over, and once again said he was the wrong guy. Spencer thought he would be freed, but the cops kept him in handcuffs and brought him back to jail.

While he was in jail, Spencer said, Officer Tepper stopped by his cell and said, "I need to apologize to him." Spencer said Tepper told him he would remain in jail until he apologized. Spencer was also facing the possibility of being charged with assaulting a police officer.

"I didn't want to apologize to him," Spencer testified; "I didn't think I did anything wrong."

But Spencer eventually apologized and was released without being charged. He wound up in a hospital getting treatment for his burns. Spencer said Officer Tepper stopped by his house a few days later. The cop brought Spencer's black hat that had been left behind at the station. Officer Tepper told Spencer that he needed to develop more respect for police officers.

The sad thing was that Spencer had recently taken and passed the qualification test for becoming a Philadelphia police officer.

"I wanted to be a Philadelphia police officer,"Spencer testified. "I wanted to work, serve and protect the community I grew up in."

But after his experience with Officer Tepper, Spencer told the jury he changed his mind about wanting to become a police officer.

When Spencer was asked if he remembered Tepper's badge number, he spat out "4647."

"I'll remember that badge number for the rest of my life," he said.

On cross-examination, a lawyer for the city of Philadelphia tried to soften the blow of Spencer's testimony by suggesting that Spencer wasn't sure which officer had punched him while he had his face down on the hood.

In a complaint filed with the city, Spencer had said the only punch he was sure Tepper threw was the first, when Tepper was facing him, and Spencer refused to give him his ID. In the complaint, Spencer had told the police that when he was thrown down on the hood of the car, he had his back to the cops, and did not know for sure which cop was punching him, because he couldn't see them.

After Spencer testified, Judge Legrome D. Davis adjourned court early for the day. The judge, however, wasn't too happy about it.

The judge told lawyers in the case that a retired police inspector had expressed little interest in appearing in court today to talk about her investigation of the complaint filed by Spencer against Officer Tepper back in 2000.

The judge instructed the city's lawyers to inform the retired police inspector that if she didn't appear in court, she would be discussing the situation in person with the judge, after she was escorted to the court house by U.S. Marshals.

"I believe the law applies to all people, including former police officers," the judge lectured lawyers on both sides, after the jury had left for the day. "So that's where we're at."

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