Spend all your time in a cesspool and you're going to smell.
That's the assessment of retired Philadelphia Police Captain Al DiGiacomo as he follows the ongoing corruption trial of six narcotics cops in U.S. District Court.
Now a professor of criminal justice at West Chester University, DiGiacomo, 65, has been watching the case unfold from his perch in academia. For the veteran cop the allegations are similar to those that surfaced in two earlier and infamous narcotics squad corruption investigations.
But whether the six defendants in the ongoing case end up disgraced and convicted like members of the Five Squad or the tainted cops of the 39th District is still a very much open question.
The prosecution is expected to rest its case in the four-week trial tomorrow at which point the defense will begin calling witnesses. While it's unlikely any of the defendants will take the stand, the defense has promised to call several top Police Department officials who knew of or who were on the scene for some of the "episodes" detailed in the racketeering indictment that was handed up two years ago.
The six officers are charged with going rogue. The indictment alleges that over a six year period beginning in 2006 they stole $500,000 in cash, drugs and other valuables -- like Rolex and Movado watches -- from drug dealers they had targeted and then falsified police reports to cover their tracks.
Testimony from more than a dozen admitted drug dealers and from one self-admitted dirty cop have provided the jury with a bleak, street-level view of the drug underworld and a more detailed account of the criminal activities alleged in the indictment. It was all part of a cesspool full of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, prescription pills and cash; a world populated by liars and thieves -- some of whom, authorities say, had badges.
The question for the jury is whether the six cops on trial became a part of that world while working in it. Did they bend the rules while building cases and making arrests? Or did they break them?
The police officials -- inspectors, captains, lieutenants and sergeants -- called to testify for the defense are expected to offer a different look at the world described by the prosecution's witnesses. Narcotics cops are a breed apart and that's part of what the defense hopes to show the jury. They work the worst neighborhoods in the city. They spend hours on the job, dressed in street clothes and driving unmarked cars. Their sources are, in many instances, former targets.
It's a labor intensive, time-consuming job that can often be frustrating. Arrest a drug dealer today and he's back on the street tomorrow. Clean up a drug corner this week and next week a new crew is out there peddling dope to the same customers.
"It's a job where there isn't a lot of supervision," said DiGiacomo. "They're pretty much on their own, developing their own cases and going wherever the job takes them."
It's easy, he said, to drift; to lose sight of what the job is; to cut corners and take shortcuts to make cases.
The Police Department, DiGiacomo said, is an institution that values numbers and statistics. Make cases and show a steady arrest record and you are rewarded. The feds have alleged that police officials charged with supervising the Narcotics Field Unit where the six defendants worked looked the other way because the numbers were good.
Drugs and cash were seized. Arrests were made. The feds, of course, allege that false reports and planted evidence supported those arrests. And, they contend, in many cases drugs ended up back on the street and chunks of the cash ended up in the pockets of the arresting officers.
The six defendants, Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser were veterans of the Narcotics Field Unit. Combined, they had more than 60 years working in the squad.
That's a lot of time to spend in a cesspool.
It will be up to the jury to decide whether they were trying to clean it up, or whether, as the prosecution has argued, they were wallowing in it.
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.