Monday, December 10, 2012

Did the City of Philadelphia Turn A Blind Eye to Officer Frank Tepper's Use of Excessive Force?

The jury in the killer cop civil trial will have to decide whether the city of Philadelphia deliberately ignored Officer Frank Tepper's past use of excessive force, and whether the murder of 21-year-old Billy Panas was a preventable tragedy.
James J. Binns

Lawyers in the federal case staked out opposing views during closing statements to the jury.

James J. Binns, lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the jury to remember the 911 tape from the night of the murder. On the tape, the first exhibit played to the  jury, Tepper is heard identifying himself to the 911 operator as a police officer, and then greeting fellow police officers arriving at the scene with: "It's all right" and, "We're all cops here."

"For him this was business as usual," Binns said, meaning that Officer Tepper was used to the police department covering up and excusing his use of excessive force.

"The city of Philadelphia turned a blind eye" to Tepper's abuses, Binns argued. It was "a policy of deliberate indifference" that Binns said not only emboldened Tepper, but "caused the murder of Billy Panas."

Deputy City Solicitor Mark V. Maguire characterized that argument as "a bridge too far."

"This is a tragic anomaly," Maguire said of the murder of Billy Panas. "No one could have predicted it ... Any one who tells you this was predictable is being disingenuous."

In his closing statement, Binns brought up a 1995 incident where Tepper had engaged in a car-chase pursuing a 21-year-old man that Tepper believed had made sexually harassing remarks to Tepper's fiancee. Tepper wound up beating the man in the face with the butt of his revolver, according to witnesses, in the presence of other officers.

Binns also brought up a 2000 incident where Officer Tepper, in plain clothes and brandishing a gun, punched an 18-year-old in the mouth after the man refused to show Tepper his ID. Tepper and three cops then bent the 18-year-old's arm behind him, and shoved him face-down on the sizzling hood of an idling car. The 18-year-old wound up with a broken arm and second degree burns on his forehead.

The jury in the civil case of Panas Vs. Frank Tepper & the City of Philadelphia will also have to decide whether Officer Tepper was acting as a police officer or a private citizen on the night of Nov. 21, 2009, when he murdered Panas.

Binns reminded the jury of the statements of ten witnesses who attended a baby shower at Tepper's house that night. The witnesses, all Tepper's friends and family members, said that the off-duty cop identified himself as a police officer and displayed his badge to the crowd of teenagers gathered outside his home.

City Solicitor Maguire reminded the jury of the testimony of nine young people who were with Panas the night of the murder; all nine  of whom said that Tepper did not identify himself as a police officer. Tepper was "clearly off duty" and not in uniform at the time, Maguire added.

The murder of Panas was "not a police action," but a criminal one, Maguire said. Panas was not committing any crime, and Tepper was not attempting to make an arrest.

"That's not the actions of a police officer," Maguire said. "That's the actions of a criminal and a murderer."

As Binns went through violent incidents from Tepper's past, he repeatedly pointed out how many known instances there were that Tepper got away with lying to his fellow officers during internal investigations, even though that's a fireable offense. Binns also pointed out to the jury how many members of the police department brass signed off on each of these "whitewash" investigations, including captains, inspectors and deputy police commissioners, all the way up to the police commissioner.

Binns dwelled on an incident in 2002, where Tepper was upset that a teenage boy had given his 8 year-old son a wedgie. Tepper wound up Macing a crowd of teenagers, including one young baby-sitter holding a two-year-old infant in her arms. Tepper also waved his gun at the teenagers, and according to witnesses, said, "I'll shoot you, I'll shoot all of you; I don't care."

An internal police investigation said that Tepper's actions, "although immediate and understandable," could have resulted in "numerous injuries, and the use of deadly force."

To attorney Binns, that meant the police department was whitewashing Tepper's actions as "immediate and understandable," even though department officials knew Tepper's volatile and drunken behavior could have deadly consequences.

Seven years later, on Nov. 21, 2009, Tepper was upset about a crowd of teenagers gathered outside his home while he was hosting a baby shower for his step-daughter. The guests from Tepper's party got into an argument with Billy Panas and other kids from the neighborhood. Tepper came outside, brandished his gun and threatened the crowd of young people, saying he would shoot them all. It was Panas who made the mistake of saying the cop wouldn't shoot anybody, and then calling him "a pussy."

"I'm a pussy am I?," Tepper allegedly said before pointing the gun at Panas and pulling the trigger.

In his closing statement to the jury, City Solicitor Maguire said the city had no way of knowing that Officer Tepper would commit murder. He had only seven complaints against him during a 16-year career, Maguire said. According to police department records, Officer Tepper had only used force on duty 14 times, a "low number" for an officer with that long a career who worked in the busiest police district in the city, Maguire said.

Maguire reminded the jury that during that 1995 car chase, Officer Tepper thought the two 21-year-old men in the car had harassed his fiancee by "making sexual comments." The two men were arrested and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, Maguire said.

Also in the 2002 Mace incident, four teenagers were found guilty of assaulting Officer Tepper, Maguire said.

Maguire advised jurors to "set aside your sympathies" and recognize that for seven years before the murder of Panas, Officer Tepper had "a spotless record." Maguire asked the jury to find the city not liable for the murder of Panas.

The parents of Billy Panas are also suing Frank Tepper for damages. Tepper has declined to be represented at the trial.

After both lawyers sat down, Judge Legrome D. Davis told the jury that they would have to use their common sense to figure out "the task of doing justice."

The judge recalled the words of his father, a retired Air Force sergeant: "Legrome, watch people and they'll tell you everything you need to know."

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