Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Why prosecutors couldn't convict Narcotics Unit cops accused of corruption.

For those of us who have been pleading the cause of police reform since before Ferguson spotlighted the issue, Thursday’s acquittal of six Narcotics Unit cops accused of shaking down drug dealers is bound to be a disappointment and discouragement.

This process was never going to be easy.

The truth is: While the case against the six seemed pretty devastating back when you read the indictment or listened to prosecutors announcing the charges, it was rather less impressive once it got back to court.

I attended a couple of days of the trial in the early going. While the details were salacious  — one drug dealer, testifying that the officers had threatened to throw him off a balcony, quoted one as saying, “This is fucking Training Day for real” — the truth is that the case boiled down to the word of drug dealers (and one admittedly corrupt cop) versus the word of a half-dozen police officers.

Most people will — not without reason — read the end of that last sentence as “the word of bad guys versus the word of good guys.” It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for the “good guys” in such a scenario. And after 40 years of pop culture ranging the Dirty Harry movies to Justified,  perhaps we, the audience-slash-citizenry, have been trained to give police a little extra benefit of the doubt, to maybe get a little thrill from the idea of cops “breaking the rules” to get their man.

What’s more, we live in a city that has repeatedly failed to convict (or sometimes even prosecute) cops for brutal acts caught on video. The word of drug dealers is going to be better than that?

Prosecutors seemed to hope they could establish the necessary level of guilt by piling detail upon detail, sending a parade of witnesses forth in the hope that the sheer mass of testimony, and the similarity of its details from cases to case, might create enough mass to produce a guilty verdict. If those resources had been deployed against a single defendant, perhaps they would’ve produced a guilty verdict.

Against a half-dozen officers, pleading their innocence in unity? Again, very difficult.

Listen, police reform will not be achieved by convicting all the bad cops anyway. It will be achieved by changing the culture, with better training, improved accountability processes,  with a whole range of changes that, thankfully, seem to be in motion.

The scary thing, though? These officers might get their jobs back.

“The next step for the six acquitted officers from this morning’s verdict will no doubt be to use the city’s broken arbitration system to overturn their dismissals (though the police department says that one of the officers has resigned),” former Philadelphia writer Dan Denvir notes at City Lab. “And then they could very well end up back on the street once again holding a gun, a badge, and the power of arrest over the citizens of Philadelphia.”

Commissioner Charles Ramsey doesn’t seem much inclined to let that happen.  “They’re no longer police officers,” he said Thursday.

That’s as it should be. If prosecutors could not prove the Narcotics Unit officers guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, it is also difficult, at this point, to imagine the officers being able to perform their duties with any level of public confidence. They should have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are fit for duty before getting their jobs back. The people of Philadelphia deserve no less.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.