PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Six city narcotics officers used gangland tactics to shake down drug dealers, relying on guns, badges, beatings and threats to extort huge piles of cash and cocaine, federal authorities charged in an indictment Wednesday.
The police officers once held a suspect over an 18th floor balcony and used a steel bar to beat someone else in the head, authorities said. They held one man captive in a hotel room for several days while he and his family were threatened, they said.
And another dealer was thrown in a jail cell overnight, uncharged, while officers broke into his home and stole a safe with $80,000 in it.
"It is almost a perennial in this city, that you go from one corrupt narcotics unit to another," said lawyer Larry Krasner, who represents some of the approximately 60 people suing the city and individual officers over tainted drug arrests. "When you're dealing with narcotics, there is always more temptation because the ability to steal, and to extort and to abuse is much greater."
The scheme ran from 2006 to 2012, when Officer Jeffrey Walker was arrested. He has since pleaded guilty and cooperated in the ensuing two-year probe. Walker and a colleague "stole and distributed a multi-kilo quantity of cocaine, like everyday drug dealers do," U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said.
The six accused officers — Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Michael Spicer, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser — all pleaded not guilty during brief federal court hearings Thursday afternoon. They will be held without bail until detention hearings Monday.
Defense lawyers said the allegations come from dubious informants: drug dealers and Walker.
"I'm surprised the government will give them so much deference and credence," said lawyer Gregory Pagano, who represents Betts.
Brian McMonagle, a lawyer representing Liciardello, predicted they would all be exonerated and returned to duty.
They will be suspended by the department while police administrators take steps to fire them. They had been put on desk duty as the investigation unfolded, and dozens of cases have since been dismissed.
"I took them out of narcotics, but I left them ... on the job," said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who attended a news conference with the U.S. attorney. "I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that investigation."
The charges in the 26-count indictment include racketeering conspiracy, extortion, robbery, kidnapping and drug dealing. The alleged shakedowns involved the seizure of as much as $210,000 at a time, along with three kilos of cocaine, Rolex watches and a Calvin Klein suit. The officers sometimes reported some of the cash on police reports, and other times reported nothing at all, the indictment said.
Most of the defendants face at least a seven-year mandatory sentence if convicted.
But the U.S. attorney acknowledged police corruption cases can be difficult to win. He said investigators have to build a rock-solid case before making arrests because "you know that a battle is coming when you get to trial."
The Philadelphia district attorney's office said it notified police two years ago that it would no longer rely on testimony from five of the officers, and as a result no open cases involving them remained. Cases involving the sixth officer, Norman, were now being reviewed, the office said in a statement.
Walker pleaded guilty in February to stealing $15,000 from a drug dealer in a plot that also involved planting drugs in his car. His lawyer had said he was cooperating in a wider probe of the drug trafficking unit.
Ramsey has made fighting police corruption a hallmark of his six-year tenure in Philadelphia. He complained that the police contract bars him from transferring officers between units or making other personnel changes without cause.
"The commissioner is right," Krasner said. "We have arbitrators who routinely put officers back in the department who never should have been there in the first place."