The Beatings Will Be Televised

Inside the Philadelphia Police Department: What officers think when cop vs. citizen videos go viral.

First, Philadelphia Police Lt. Jonathan Josey was captured on video, advancing on a slightly built Latina woman from behind and throwing a hard, sudden right to her face. Officer William Gress was next, getting slapped by a big, drunken man and retaliating by beating his assailant down with his nightstick.

Like most people, Police Captain Joseph Bologna saw the two recent controversial police videos during his off hours, on the television news. A 23-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department and captain of the 19th district, Bologna narrated the videos for his wife and kids, explaining not only what they were seeing but pointing out gaps in the video record.

“That’s the thing with these videos,” says Bologna. “They’re short, and a lot of times there are things that happen preceding the video, or after the video, or out of the camera’s view, that are important.”

Can the Police Learn From Viral Videos?

At his station house, Bologna hears what officers are saying, “and with these videos, there’s sort of a split.”

Younger officers expect that pretty much everything they do is fair game for anyone with a cell phone camera, but “some of the older officers feel like it’s not fair,” says Bologna. “They feel like they’re being micromanaged or armchair quarterbacked by the media or the public on everything they do, and the videos that people see are incomplete.”

Bologna relates to both groups. When he first joined the force in the late ’80s, even bulky camcorders were relatively new, and only early adopters carried cell phones.

Today, a limited number of computer terminals in any station house are able to access the Internet. But his officers have their own smartphones. So many of them first saw those videos in the station house, on the same technology that captured them.

“I try to look at the videos, when one comes up, to see if I can use them as an educational tool,” he says. “What can we learn from them?”

Can Citizens Learn From Viral Videos?

Most stories about social media focus on the ways technology has made the world smaller, formed a tighter circle out of disparate communities. While many PPD officers, including Detective Joseph Murray and 9th District Captain Daniel McDonald, are now using Twitter as a way to connect with citizens, the public can also use smartphones to quickly disseminate images that might drive people apart, opening new wounds in the relationship between civilians and police.

Police Chief Charles Ramsey received notification of both videos from his Public Affairs office—a text, as he remembers it, on the Josey incident, and a phone call on Gress.

When the Josey video first went viral, “I went to my laptop,” Ramsey says, “and watched it. When something like that happens, as a commissioner, I recognize the challenge these incidents create for us with the public. But I also know, you’ve got to take each incident separately.”

Anyone who feels police are treating them unfairly, says Ramsey, has many remedies available to them after an incident—from the courts to the media—but this seems unlikely to assuage the concerns of a young man like Marcus Warryton, the subject of a third incident taped in June this year.

Warryton, an 18-year-old African-American male who had just been in a traffic accident that caused his air bags to deploy, may have been disoriented from the crash. At the time, Ramsey said the video record clearly showed Warryton “resisting arrest.”

Ramsey believes the videos offer an opportunity for police and citizens to dialogue and better understand each other. Is there any teaching moment in the Warryton video? Does Ramsey have any advice for citizens who wind up the subject of an arrest?

“Yes,” says Ramsey. “Don’t resist.”

The Divide Between Citizens and Police

The Josey video was shot in September on 5th and Lehigh during celebrations of the annual Puerto Rican Day parade.

In the early moments on most of the clips available online, the crowd mills around a group of Philadelphia police. Something appears to be thrown into the crowd. Previously published guesses have ranged from water to silly string. Josey turns quickly and seems so certain the woman threw something, he pursues her and delivers that infamous right hook.

“He had no possible explanation,” says Ramsey. “In any use-of-force incident, one of the things you look for is what range of options the officer had available.”

That right hand, says Ramsey, was not even on the menu. The commissioner acted quickly, firing Josey before the workweek elapsed. But even here, the division between police and citizens is apparent.

Citizens might expect some police to feel embarrassed by such an incident—a very large cop laying out a small, unarmed woman for the not-so-grievous and unproven offense of throwing silly string at a community event. But publicly, at least, little embarrassment has been displayed. Josey, a 19-year veteran with a previously spotless record, was so well liked by fellow officers that they are renting out the Fraternal Order of Police union catering hall to throw a fund-raiser for him.

“That’s the brotherhood,” says Michael Chitwood Sr., the police superintendent in Upper Darby who long served in the PPD. “I think, as a member of the administration, you have to take a stand against the improper use of force. But a member of the rank-and-file buys a ticket to the fund-raiser.”

The upshot is disturbing from a civilian perspective. A citizen watches the video and identifies with the woman sent sprawling backward.

Police, however, watch the same video and empathize with the person in uniform. As one former colleague of Josey’s told me, “I think he lost it, for 30 seconds, and those 30 seconds might cost him his job.”

The Josey story isn’t over. The Fraternal Order of Police is challenging Josey’s firing. FOP president John McNesby states, flatly: “I expect to see him as a member of the Philadelphia Police Department again.”

Ramsey acted so quickly, says McNesby, that any arbitrator will perceive Josey as having been treated unfairly according to the terms of the city’s police contract. “I think he deserves due process like anyone else. I believe that the fact this was on video, the commissioner acted a lot more rashly than he would have otherwise.”

It isn’t just the police officers who are adjusting to being watched, according to McNesby. But their bosses, too.

Police vs. Citizens: What Are the Rules?

The video of William Gress’s altercation with a drunk on South Street is a lot more complicated.

For starters, Gress drags a long history of lawsuits behind him, 13 in his career, involving allegations including unreasonable force and unlawful arrest. Ramsey admits this number of suits renders Gress a “statistical outlier,” but cautions that every incident needs to be treated individually.

In one incident, Gress arrested a sidewalk artist who had permission to be drawing her trademark, abstract patterns on South Street. The FOP’s McNesby defends Gress, calling him “aggressive,” and “the sort of cop the city wants.”

He is also clearly not dealing with a diminutive, chalk-wielding artist in the video shot on South Street recently, during Oktoberfest. In the early seconds, Gress is squaring off with an obviously inebriated man, identified by police as 43-year-old John Scrivano, of Essington, Delaware County, who appears eager to fight the city policeman.

City police are taught to de-escalate any potentially violent situation, and Ramsey agrees that in these early moments Gress seems to be doing anything but—moving in close to stand toe to toe with the drunk, nightstick drawn. But Ramsey says the video can lie.

“We don’t know what happened beforehand,” he says. “And we do see Officer Gress get assaulted.”

Watching the struggle, it’s easy to imagine what a desperate situation this must be for a city cop. The street is filled with people attending the festivities on South Street. Many of them must be drunk because they seem to regard the fight as sport, clapping or hooting as the two men battle on the ground.

Did Gress go too far?

Well, there are various possible answers to that question.

Numerous police admit, under condition of anonymity, that it is unofficial yet standard practice to deliver an “extra couple of shots” to suspects who have either assaulted a police officer in public or run from police. The idea is that any use of force by a civilian, or even the act of fleeing, potentially puts lives in danger—not only in the moment, but in the future. In short, force elders mentor younger officers to view resistance as something that must be met with some sort of swift and equally public payback; without such a response, both the perpetrator and any civilian witnesses will feel emboldened to run from or, worse, fight police.

It is also possible that Gress, his adrenaline pumping, simply felt the man represented a continued threat. But Ramsey says the video record is simply incomplete.

“We just don’t know what that guy who slapped Gress was doing at that point,” he says. “We can’t see him.”

The video might be most powerful, however, precisely because of that gap.

It’s in that blank space that officers and civilians have an opportunity to create images and fill in those empty spaces in the record. Some civilians might see a drunk guy who got what was coming to him, or a cop who needs more restraint. Police might see a “perp” who paid the necessary price for slapping a cop, or imagine that Gress saw the very real possibility that the man who slapped him only moments before was rearing up for another go.

Despite these gaps, and the fact that many police across the country try to prevent civilians from taping them, Ramsey says, “I have no problem with civilians shooting video. I think the public should be allowed to record officers in the act of performing their duties in a public space. But these videos can fool people into thinking they know everything that happened.”

People can say, “I saw it,” according to Ramsey, but that just begs a question: What didn’t you see?

Right now, what’s most apparent is that Philadelphia’s police and citizens don’t see the same thing, even when it’s captured on video.