The Surreal Story of the Camera Cutting Cops

When I google "Worst Person Ever," the fifth thing that comes up is State Rep. John Perzel. Rep. Perzel deserves that honor for the piss poor, underhanded, undemocratic, regressive and anti-Philadelphia way he managed the Pennsylvania State House. But for today, he gets a one day reprieve, because of these guys:

THE NARCOTICS officers knew they were being watched on video surveillance moments after they entered the bodega.

Officer Jeffrey Cujdik told store owner Jose Duran that police were in search of tiny ziplock bags often used to package drugs. But, during the September 2007 raid, Cujdik and fellow squad members seemed much more interested in finding every video camera in the West Oak Lane store.

"I got like seven or eight eyes," shouted Officer Thomas Tolstoy, referring to the cameras, as the officers glanced up. "There's one outside. There is one, two, three, four in the aisles, and there's one right here somewhere."

For the next several minutes, Tolstoy and other Narcotics Field Unit officers systematically cut wires to cameras until those "eyes" could no longer see.

Then, after the officers arrested Duran and took him to jail, nearly $10,000 in cash and cartons of Marlboros and Newports were missing from the locked, unattended store, Duran alleges. The officers guzzled sodas and scarfed down fresh turkey hoagies, Little Debbie fudge brownies and Cheez-Its, he said.

Pretty terrible. But, in the era of the magical internets, it looks like today's worst person era had a real 'oopsie' moment:

What the officers didn't count on was that Duran's high-tech video system had a hidden backup hard-drive. The backup downloaded the footage to his private Web site before the wires were cut.

This is so bad that it is bizarre. Put it this way, when you make an officer alleged to be selling crack look good by comparison, you know you are doing a bad thing.

It has been a rough year or so for the PPD. With all the tragedies they have seen, and with the goodwill that Chief Ramsey seems to have engendered, the relationship of the police to the general public seems about as close I can ever remember it. Stories like these go a long way to destroying that.

And it is a reminder that oversight, both from the media and from the government, will always, always be needed.

Maybe obvious

but bears repeating: this, like the Luzerne County juvenile court mess, is so awful because it involves an abuse of pretty-absolute power.

From the March 20 article, before the video turned out to apparently substantiate the store owners' stories:

Danilo Burgos, president of the city's Dominican Grocery Store Association of more than 300 members, said one member recently alleged that police cut video-camera wires and stole $5,000 while searching his store. The store owner told Burgos that he didn't want to report it.

"Most of these people just want to earn a decent living and go on about their business," Burgos said.

And many Dominicans often are afraid to speak up because they come from a country where police are notoriously corrupt.

"Back home, police get away with everything, including murder," Burgos said.

"They fear something similar could happen to them here."

Moe Maghtha, who moved to the United States from Jordan in 1999, said his father's experience with Cujdik and the other narcotics officers has left him too scared to operate his South Philly tobacco shop.

"If he sees cops now, he freaks out," Maghtha said. "My dad never been in jail. My dad never been in trouble. Now he's like a little kid that got bit by a dog. He won't go out."

Maghtha, 23, said he had to give up his job as a satellite-dish technician to take over his dad's store. Maghtha's father, 53, recently suffered heart problems and did not want to be interviewed or allow his name or the name of his store to appear in this article.

And:

Sirilo Ortiz said that on the evening of Nov. 1, 2007, he had emerged from the basement of Lycomings Grocery in Hunting Park to see a gun barrel pointed at his face.

After Cujdik and his squad members burst into the store, they cut the wires to the surveillance camera with wire cutters, he said, then looted the store.

Ortiz, 39, who came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1996, had owned the store just five days.

One cop took a Black & Mild, a slender cigar, from the shelf and started to smoke, said Ortiz, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter.

The officers took three brown boxes from his kitchen and loaded them with food, he said.

"It was like they was shopping," said Maria Espinal, who was working in the kitchen and saw the cops take boxes stuffed with packaged goods.

The cops put a gun to Espinal's head, too, she said, before identifying themselves as police. "I thought I was going to die," she said.

Ortiz said he had about $500 in his pocket and $700 in the cash register. But the police recorded taking a total of only $918 on property receipts.

Ortiz said he took a plea deal and served six months' probation and 25 hours of community service for selling the tiny plastic bags.

He was so depressed and anxious, he lost 25 pounds and could no longer work in the store, he said.

"I couldn't take it no more," said Ortiz. "Every time someone opened the door, I thought something bad would happen."

He gave the store to his brother and now drives a cab.

"Cops are supposed to take care of people and do the right thing," Ortiz said. "I don't trust them anymore. You're supposed to trust the police, but they're the ones you can't trust.

"They weren't supposed to be the ones."

When you end up driving a cab because that feels relatively safe, things are pretty bad.

But George Bochetto says "not one scintilla of truth"

and everyone knows that George Bochetto never attempts to skew the facts or push interpretations of the law so unique as to defy believability.

Bochetto says there is no way those cops took $10,000 that disappeared from that corner store after they cut the wires on each of 8 video cameras before executing their apparently fraudulently acquired search warrant. Bochetto is a man of his word and the highest of legal ethics, cautious and infallible in every legal theory he advances.

Clearly anyone who thinks the cops have been up to no good when they systematically disabled every single camera in the store are just succumbing to media hype.

"Now that the Daily News has created a mass hysteria concerning the Philadelphia Narcotics Unit, it comes as no surprise that every defendant ever arrested will now proclaim their innocence and bark about being mistreated.

"Suffice it to say, there is a not a scintilla of truth to such convenient protestations."

Now I seem to remember that Bochetto has recently put forward a controversial legal theory some place else recently. Can anyone else remember where that was exactly?

-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

I am clearly at the wrong firm

No risk of layoffs at Bochetto & Lentz with how busy they are keeping.

Yeah well they say innovation in business starts with creativity

and George Bochetto has been outdoing himself with advancing legal theories that are very um "creative" lately.

Well with all the business he probably won't have any trouble coming up with donations to match his previous expenditures for McCain and Specter. Sounds like Arlen needs it. See labor does support Specter - just indirectly - via George Bochetto's fees.
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

On a side note

Theres something humorously literary about an (ahem allegedly) crooked narcotics officer by the last name of Tolstoy.
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

bankruptcy

this just shows, again, the utter bankruptcy of the war on drugs.

I think you mean

the utter bankruptcy of the "war on non-existent miniature plastic ziplock baggies" since thats the law these cops were in theory so zealously enforcing while they were destroying this shopkeepers business on the tax payer's dime. Not actual drug enforcement, just enforcement of empty miniature plastic baggie sales.

Even if you take the cops story on its surface, one really has to ask if those cops were really effectively using tax payer funds wisely to keep our streets safe. I, for one, thinks its well worth closing one more pool if it means these fine men can continue to bust up neighborhood tax-paying businesses just to go after miniature plastic bags.

I mean the drugs only come from what 2 continents away. Clearly the weak link to go after in drug enforcement is the baggies. The dealers will be so flumoxed by the unavailability of small plastic bags they will give up and stop selling drugs if we JUST STOP THE BAGS!

Which leads to a serious question. How the hell do you get a warrant to bust a store for (gasp!) allegedly selling (though videotape disputes the warrant's "confidential informer") plastic bags? And more than that how can I get job being a paid "confidential informer" ratting out plastic baggie sellers? Because I've got a real hot tip for an officer who will pay big.

Lets go crack some skulls on Jeweler's Row. If some unset diamonds and pearls happen to disappear in the course of the bust, I know a real good lawyer we can call.
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

great snark sean

when I lived in RI, a unit of crack cocaine was referred to as a "foil" because that's what it was wrapped in.

so we need to ban aluminum foil too.
oh and tape cassette cases, because sometimes hippies hide their weed there.

I say we go after Office Max too

Because all that rampant paper dealing is obviously just a front for bindle making. And for folks needing a "how-to".

On the serious tip. Not only does this case raise serious questions about the officer themselves but the fact that they were to pull at least 8 different warrants to raid corner bodegas and tobacco stores for allegedly selling minature plastic bags. That means 8 different times a judge was given some paper work saying in effect "we believe this small business is selling a fairly innocuous item which can be used in drug distribution but also for all kinds of other uses, like holding beads, jewelry findings, small mechanical parts- give us a legal blank check to send 5 guys with guns and bullet proof vests to storm in and harass the owners". None of those at least 8 times did the judge say "well hold on a minute - a corner bodega allegedly selling plastic ziplock bags is really not in the same category as armed gang members dividing up kilo-sized bricks of cocaine, is this even an appropriate use of police personnel?" Not once.

Clearly it isn't. Even if each of the merchants was (gasp!) actually selling packages of tiny ziplock bags. I mean how is harassing merchants even vaguely justifiable as effective drug enforcement policy? Or is it that basically any warrant for just about anything a member of the PPD narcotics squad can dream up, no matter how ludicrous automatically approved?
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

"And it is a reminder that

"And it is a reminder that oversight, both from the media and from the government, will always, always be needed." (quoted from Dan U-A above)

Now if we can have the same (e.g., media and government oversight) for attorneys in the Commonwealth, this would certainly be a step forward for a more accountable and ethical system of government for all Pennsylvanians.

So I'm still troubled with the warrants

The types of baggies that these cops claim to be hunting down - even the "best" ones for packaging drugs in - the little ones with images printed on them for "branding" purposes are cheap and readily available to anyone with an internet connection from Fetpak. Fetpak is a leading distrbutor for all kinds of retail and packaging supplies. Everything from the plastic "tee-shirt" bags that say "Thank You For Shopping" to the sticker rolls for price sticker guns to the butcher paper you wrap hoagies in.

Literally anybody can order these bags with any of a dizzying array of images they want for $9.95 per thousand, no shipping charges. I'm not a marketing genius but it seems to me if I am selling an illegal product that I am interested in "branding", I'm going to pick to order a baggy whose packaging image is more unique than the ones for sale at Mauricio's Corner Grocery. Its one of those things about "branding", it only works if noone else is using the same "brand" - its part of why GM doesn't put Honda decals on its products to make them sell better.

Why, despite the obvious fact that corrupt cops like to harass and steal from local merchants, did anyone at any level approve warrants for selling baggies? What utter and complete lack of thought went into prioritizing "crimes" that don't actually affect the safety of regular citizens? Some judge looked at these warrants and said - "Yeah lets get those awful bag retailers". What flawed logic went into thinking harrasing plastic baggies is a productive use of police resources? Was anyone even looking before they rubberstamped these warrants? Why is this even a "crime" and not merely a fine from L&I, under any circumstances?

So yes it sucks that cops turn crooked, but its worse that noone at any level in the Criminal Justice system is asking why those cops are doing the very absurd thing they claim to be wasting taxpayer money on while they are actually stealing from corner bodegas.

How many hours of librarians went down the drain while these guys were allegedly pilfering cash and Little Debbies on the taxpayer's dime (and harrassing a BPT paying, job-providing local business)? How many tax dollars went into legal costs for processing these patently wasteful warrants? Why wasn't a judge or supervisor paying attention?
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

Good idea for GM, Sean

Putting the name Honda on their cars might really boost sales for GM.

But I guess you are not the first one to think of it. Chrysler is going to put the name Fiat on their cars, soon.

I guess thats an improvement

Chrysler would move from being percieved as clunky and unreliable to being percieved sleek, stylish and even more unreliable so I'm not sure its a huge gain. ;)
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

George Bochetto's "not one scintilla" of evidence gets bigger

as the accumulation of stories of police shakedowns of corner bodegas begins to increase as it gains momentum, like a snowball rolling down a hill. I'm wondering how many accusations will surface by the time this goes to trial.

Evidently though it takes the coordinated effort of a bunch of narcotics officers with guns smashing security cameras to crack down on empty plastic baggie sales, that same degree effort does translate into actually showing up to court to make sure those awful alleged baggie sellers actually get convicted of something.

Municipal Court Judge Ronald B. Merriweather dismissed the charges on Feb. 5, 2008, for "lack of prosecution." Cathie Abookire, spokeswoman for District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, said the case was dismissed because the police witnesses failed to appear in court, as they were testifying in another court case.

I'm paranthetically just so glad that Lynne Abraham thinks its a productive use of prosecutorial resources to actually bring these baggie sales cases to trial. Smart move, Lynne.

And again noone asked if these were appropriate warrants to issue:

Richard Cujdik's affidavit supporting the search warrant stated that a confidential informant had twice gone into the deli to buy tiny zippered plastic bags, which are commonly used to package drugs for individual sale. It is illegal to sell the bags if they are intended for the narcotics trade.

Police reported confiscating $380 in cash, two handguns, and plastic packets. After the charges were dismissed, police returned the licensed guns to Collado-Gomez, but not the $380.

There was no record of the $8,560 that Collado-Gomez claims police took

-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

What does this even mean?

John J. McNesby, president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, yesterday excused the actions of the narcotics squads, saying they were permitted to disable cameras to protect their own security. He said the searches did not violate any rules.

It means FOP members have the right

to defend themselves from the possiblity of prosecution no matter what crimes they might commit while on duty. They are cops - that means they get to enforce the laws, not have to follow them themselves, silly rabbit.

If a cop destroys your property making sure it doesn't record him doing anything illegal he's "protecting" his "security", his job security to be exact.

Jennifer, you sound like one of those hippies who thinks the Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures or something.
-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

Well, McNesby will be happy to hear

that if the Constitution does protect that stuff, it probably won't for much longer. Not enough hippies on the Supreme Court, sadly.

At least Ramsey acts, Green-Ceisler proves prophetic

According to the Daily News' David Gambacorta, Ramsey approved breaking up the squad accused of the bodega "busts" so as to provide a greater level of supervision on their activity.

According to Deputy Commissioner William Blackburn:

"Narcotics is one of those units that requires a small span of control because they deal with search-and-seizure warrants, confidential informants and other high-risk situations," Blackburn said. "In light of the articles and the scrutiny the Narcotics Bureau is under, we felt this was necessary."

Cujdik and nine other officers who worked in Squad 9, and five officers from a different team, are being dispersed among 10 remaining narcotics squads.

"It's not out of the norm for us to rotate people into different units," Blackburn said. "This is more about them having a higher level of supervision."

Great but rotating officers in units where there is a potential of abuse should already be standard operating procedure and is par for the course in many cities. Props to Ellen Green-Ceisler for calling for procedures that could have avoided this all the way back in 2002.

In a 2002 report that examined police enforcement of drug laws and made recommendations for preventing systemic abuse, Ellen Green-Ceisler, then director of the Police Integrity and Accountability Office, concluded that narcotics officers and supervisors should be regularly rotated.

Green-Ceisler, now a judge, found that police departments across the country require rotations to keep officers honest.

Also it should be pointed out that the position Green-Ceisler held when she issued that report no longer exists. Why? Because former Police Commissioner Johnson did not like a report the last person in that position issued and so eliminated the position a few years ago. Does anyone see the problem here?

The Daily News hit a homerun in its editorial, BTW, looking beyond specifics of the case, at best practices the city can and should adopt from other cities.

Now to figure out who gave Squad 9 so many poorly justified warrants.

-Sean
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

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