On Dec. 30, 2011, a Drexel University police officer was caught on camera using his 4,000-pound police SUV to ram a fleeing suspect.
The suspect, Walter Johnson, then 43, of West Philadelphia, was crushed against a concrete wall and pinned there for 13 seconds before the cop threw his SUV in reverse. Johnson, who was unarmed, suffered multiple pelvis fractures and a fracture of his right lower leg "with bones protruding through the skin." His injuries were detailed in a police brutality lawsuit filed last year in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court by Philadelphia lawyer Robert J. Levant.
It was a completely unjustified use of deadly force by Drexel University Police Officer Robert Allen, the lawsuit claims. But that was just the start of the alleged police misconduct in the case. The lawsuit alleges a coverup by the Drexel University police that went all the way to the top.
According to a report by an expert witness for the plaintiff, former Drexel University Police Chief Edward Spangler violated police procedures by telling the Philadelphia Police Department not to investigate the use of deadly force by one of his officers. Instead, former Chief Spangler, who was hosting a party at his home that night for his top commanders, decided that the incident was just an auto accident. He made this decision without ever leaving the party, visiting the scene or reviewing any video.
Walter Johnson was arrested and charged with attempted burglary, criminal conspiracy, attempted criminal trespass, possession of instruments of a crime and criminal mischief. But after the Philadelphia District Attorney's office got a look at the video, the D.A. decided not to prosecute. All charges against Johnson were dismissed.
The lawsuit claims negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy and malicious prosecution.
A trial is scheduled for Aug. 25th. A spokesman for Drexel University requested and then did not respond to a list of written questions.
The story began the day before New Year's Eve, 2011. Walter Johnson, wearing a dark blue hoodie, was "attempting to open several doors and push a turn-style door" on the Drexel campus, according to a second amended complaint filed Dec. 27, 2013 by Levant. Johnson was accompanied by Troy Demby, 44, of West Philadelphia.
As they strolled through the Drexel campus, the two men were unaware that they were being watched by Tiffany Augustine, a closed circuit TV camera operator for the Drexel University Department of Public Safety. Augustine notified Drexel Police Headquarters that she had observed two black males on camera attempting to break into the Bossone building on Ludlow Street. In response, three Drexel officers in two police cars raced to the corner of 31sat and Ludlow.
Two officers, Louis Gregg and Lambert Rebstock, got out of their police car and confronted the suspects. Gregg, according to the lawsuit, allegedly pointed his gun at Johnson, who started to run.
"There was no legal basis to stop or detain plaintiff or the man with him," the amended complaint by Levant stated. Troy Dembe decided not to run. He put his hands up in the air.
As Officer Rebstock pursued Johnson east on Ludlow Street, surveillance video showed a second Drexel police vehicle driven by Officer Allen "round the corner at a high rate of speed and begin to bear down on the plaintiff."
As the plaintiff kept running, the video "captures Allen making a wide turn, pointing his SUV at plaintiff and accelerating into him, violently smashing plaintiff against a concrete wall and buckling the vehicle's hood in the process."
After the collision, the video shows Officer Allen opening his driver's side door and talking to Officer Rebstock while Johnson remains pinned against the wall. After 13 seconds, Officer Allen "closes the door and proceeds to reverse his SUV, leaving plaintiff to fall to the ground," the lawsuit stated.
At first, Drexel police had told Philadelphia police that they had a crime scene that needed to be investigated.
But then Drexel Police Sgt. Fernando Santiago arrived on the scene. According to the lawsuit, the sergeant "deliberately mischaracterized the incident while speaking with Philadelphia dispatch so as to avoid the Philadelphia Police Accident Investigation Division [AID] from being summoned to the scene."
The upshot was, the Philadelphia cops never showed up. The crime scene was never secured.
In a deposition, Walter Johnson testified that he was looking for a bathroom when he was checking doors at Drexel. After he was hit by the police SUV, it took smelling salts to revive him. When he woke up, Johnson testified that he saw police officers staring at him.
"They ain't saying nothing to me," he said. "They was just looking at me. He [Officer Allen] was just sitting there looking -- And I had my hood on my head. My hood was over my head because the ground was now cold, freezing ground. And my body was tilted, I was twisted sideways."
According to Johnson, Officer Allen came over and "snatched the hood off my head while I was laying on the ground. And then the ambulance was right there."
When he was deposed, Officer Allen stated when he was looking at Johnson when he got out of his police car.
"I was concerned about him," Officer Allen said, "because I was the one that called for medical."
"And did you get a look like at his leg, what did that look like," asked Levant.
"It didn't look like anything," Allen responded. "He [Johnson] just looked like he was laying on the ground."
An incident report prepared and signed by Officer Allen stated that Officer Gregg had observed Demby "drop a clear red-handled screwdriver." Officer Gregg signed a property receipt that said he saw Demby with a screwdriver in his hands and then the officer allegedly saw Demby drop the screwdriver.
No such incident, however, was observed on surveillance video. Both Johnson and Demby denied they were carrying screwdrivers.
"I never seen a screwdriver at all," Johnson stated at his deposition.
But the cops stuck to their story.
At a March 28, 2012 preliminary hearing before Judge Joseph J. O'Neill, Officer Gregg testified that he placed Denby under arrest after he saw him drop a screwdriver. Gregg told the judge he saw "pry marks like scratch marks" on a nearby door.
But additional video turned over by the university during the lawsuit convinced an expert witness for the plaintiff that the burglary story was bogus. That's because the video showed Johnson and Demby walking past the door with the pry marks without touching it.
"This footage shows that neither Mr. Johnson nor Mr. Demby engaged in any criminal conduct, did not possess any tools in their hands, and made no efforts to force their way through the doors of any Drexel University buildings," wrote D. Joseph Griffin, former Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Northeastern University in Boston.
The additional video was not turned over to the Philadelphia district attorney's office in a timely fashion, according to the lawsuit.
"It is admitted only that Plaintiff was accidentally struck by the police cruiser driven by P.O. Allen," said the response filed April 16th by Joe H. Tucker Jr. and Carl E Jones Jr., lawyers for Drexel.
Defense lawyers Tucker and Jones claimed that Johnson and Demby had set off a burglar alarm on campus. A Philadelphia police detective conducted an independent investigation of the accident scene and "observed what appeared to be fresh pry marks consistent and the same size as the screwdrivers recovered from Plaintiff and his accomplice," the defense lawyers stated.
The defense lawyers denied that Officer Gregg pointed a gun at Johnson. They claimed that the Philadelphia police made "an independent determination that they would not respond to the scene." The defense lawyers also denied that deadly force had been used, and that Johnson had been falsely arrested.
Johnson "was properly charged with crimes, which was supported by police paperwork and evidence gathered at the scene," the defense lawyers wrote. "Although prosecution was terminated in favor of Plaintiff, it is unknown whether the withdrawal was based upon a review of an altered, enhanced and/or modified version of the original Drexel CCTV video."
According to the defense lawyers, Johnson's injuries "were the result of his own acts, negligence and/or willful or wanton misconduct." The defense lawyers claimed that the conduct of Drexel's employees "was privileged and proper under the circumstances."
In his deposition, Chief Spangler said he had left his job at Drexel University on Oct. 31, 2013 for confidential reasons. Spangler testified that he had signed a "non-disclosure agreement with the university." He declined to say anything else about his departure.
At his deposition, Spangler testified that on the night before New Year's Eve, he and his wife were hosting a party at their house for three senior Drexel University commanders and their wives. Spangler testified that he decided not to leave the party to check out the accident scene "because I had adequate supervision on scene."
Initially, Drexel University officers had called Philadelphia police and told them they had a crime scene that needed to be checked out.
But according to the expert report written by Griffin, Officer "Gregg testified that [Sgt.] Santiago then had a conversation with Chief Spangler and Gregg was ordered to call" the Philadelphia police back and "withdraw the request for a Philadelphia police investigation. [Officer] Gregg testified that he he then called" the city police back and told them that "per my chief it's not a crime scene."
The Philadelphia police officer who took both calls from Officer Gregg was Lt. Hamilton Marshmond of Southwest detectives.
In a deposition, Lt. Marshmond recalled telling Officer Gregg to "stay on location, and I'll be right out to you as soon as I can get myself together." Marshmond said he told Gregg he would bring two detectives with him.
"Did Lou Gregg make it clear to you on the phone that there was a crime scene and is that why you got yourself together?" asked Levant.
"Yes," Marshmond replied.
A few minutes later, Gregg made a second call to the Philadelphia police.
"He said he was calling me back to let me know that we did not have to come out, meaning myself or the detective did not have to come out," Marshmond said. "I asked him why ... And he said, 'My supervisor said that you don't have to come out. You don't have to come out.' "
"How would you describe his demeanor in the second phone call," asked Levant.
"In my opinion, he appeared to be uncomfortable or uneasy, and he didn't want to give much information," said Marshmond, who thought it was strange.
"Lou is a very direct person," Marshmond said.
After the crash, Officer Allen received "a two day suspension (for failing to control his vehicle) and returned to duty without any further training or instruction about the proper use of deadly force," Griffin wrote.
"It is is my opinion that Officer "Allen utilized his police vehicle as an instrument of deadly force on Dec. 30, 23011 when he turned it off the road, onto the sidewalk and into Mr. Johnson's path of travel, striking him and causing him grievous injuries," Griffin wrote. It was "wholly without justification and constituted egregious conduct by a police officer."
Officer Allen's conduct in the case "was cause for alarm and he should have been sanctioned and, if retained, retrained," Griffin wrote. "More distributing, however, is the abject failure" of the Drexel University Police Department, Griffin wrote.
Griffin ripped the Drexel police management for "their attempt to steer the crash away from a full Philadelphia police investigation, followed by their own willful failure to conduct anything other than a pro forma investigation."
The Drexel "commanders sought to avoid official scrutiny of a seriously unjustifiable conduct on the part of one of their patrolmen; scrutiny could bring discredit upon the officer, themselves, the department and the University," Griffin concluded.