Nonprofit leader accuses police officers of excessive force, false arrest

 Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

Philadelphia Police Department headquarters at 7th and Race streets (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

The executive director of a Philadelphia-based nonprofit is suing a police officer for allegedly assaulting her in front of “countless” people attending a LGBTQ pride celebration in early June.

In a federal lawsuit filed last week, Center City resident Tzvia Wexler accuses Officer Charmaine Hawkins of using excessive force against her as she made her way home from synagogue. Wexler alleges that Hawkins hit her in the face and dug her hands and fingers into Wexler’s neck.

The two came face-to-face after Hawkins told Wexler she wasn’t permitted to walk east on Market Street. That contradicted the directions another officer had given Wexler. Hawkins allegedly attacked her when Wexler tried to explain, according to the civil complaint.

The suit alleges Hawkins then “coordinated” with Officers James Koenig and Kelly Keenan to falsely arrest Wexler, retaliation for saying she wanted to file a complaint against Hawkins for striking her.

The lawsuit also accuses the officers of making up “a false version of events” and lying about Hawkins having a body camera in official paperwork filed on the incident.

“Defendants Hawkins, Koening and Keenan prepared paperwork and otherwise acted to arrest, detain, and otherwise deprive [Wexler] of her liberty and constitutional rights, alleging baseless claims and unsubstantiated crimes,” according to the suit.

Wexler was charged with aggravated assault, harassment, recklessly endangering another person and other offenses. She was placed in a holding cell at the Stout Center for Criminal Justice for several hours.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office dropped the case against Wexler after her preliminary hearing.

“What the officer said does not jive with the paperwork, it doesn’t jive with common sense and I think the [District Attorney’s Office] saw that,” said Thomas Malone, Wexler’s attorney.

The suit says Wexler has suffered physical and psychological harm — grief, anxiety, and depression — as well as a “sustained loss of earnings.” Wexler serves as executive director of the Pennsylvania & Southern New Jersey Chapter of Friends of the IDF, or Israeli Defense Forces. She is asking for compensatory and punitive damages.

Citing pending litigation, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department declined comment. The city, also named as a defendant, also declined comment.

The episode echoes an incident from 2012 involving another veteran police officer and a woman celebrating in North Philadelphia after the city’s Puerto Rican Day Parade wrapped up.

That September, Lt. Jonathan Josey was accused of punching Aida Guzman in the face for reasons that remain unclear. Cell-phone video of the incident went viral.

Less than a week later, then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said he would fire Josey. He followed through, but Josey eventually was back on the force after the Fraternal Order of Police filed a grievance over the termination and an arbitration panel sided with Josey.

In May 2013, the city agreed to a $75,000 settlement with Guzman after she filed a civil lawsuit.

Josey was reinstated that August — with back pay.

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