Philly police commander seen beating protesters faces aggravated assault charges

Staff Inspector Joe Bologna has a history of misconduct and is linked to past PPD corruption scandals.

Former Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna (center) is seen striking a protester with a baton during a protest.

Former Philadelphia Police Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna (center) is seen striking a protester with a baton during a protest. (Peopledelphia/Twitter)

A high-ranking Philadelphia Police Department commander who roughed up protesters with a baton in two separate incidents this week will be charged with aggravated assault, the District Attorney’s Office said.

The officer facing charges is Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna Jr, who has a history of misconduct and is linked to past corruption scandals. 

Before he was removed from street patrol duty this week, Bologna was operations commander of the department’s Patrol Bureau, a bicycle-mounted police unit that runs interference for protests and special events.

In one video, Bologna can be seen batoning a protester on Monday evening near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, shortly after demonstrators were controversially tear gassed near I-676. In another video, posted Tuesday, he is captured tackling a woman to the ground, as a previously peaceful demonstration on Market Street erupts into chaos.

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“Cell phone video captured Inspector Bologna using an ASP (a collapsible metal police baton) to strike the Temple University student in the back of his head while he was participating in a mass demonstration against racism and injustice in the area of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway,” reads a statement from DA Larry Krasner’s office.

Reached by phone earlier Friday, Bologna confirmed he was no longer on street patrol duty, and declined further comment.

“Right now, I’m handling operations from the office,” Bologna said.

The officer’s tenure as a veteran commander on the force has been filled with controversy.

In 2014, Bologna was cited for “failure to supervise” four narcotics officers who were accused with lying and theft chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News series “Tainted Justice.” Subsequently reassigned to lead the 19th District in West Philadelphia, Bologna oversaw a tactical squad that would go on to garner a high volume of misconduct complaints.

Michael Mellon, head of the Police Accountability Unit of the Defenders Association of Philadelphia, said Bologna’s upward trajectory in spite of this background — and his repeat association with aggressive policing — reflected many of the issues motivating the daily protests sweeping the city and nation.

“If one of these officers striking protesters was, in fact, Staff Inspector Bologna, a high-ranking supervisor, it shows that the [Philadelphia] police department has severe leadership issues,” said Mellon.

“There is no accountability at all if a guy like this ends up being promoted and put in charge of protests. He leads by example.”

The police union issued a statement late Friday that defended Bologna and bashed Krasner.

“The FOP is disgusted to learn of the arrest of one of its most decorated and respected police leaders,” wrote FOP Lodge President, John McNesby. “These charges clearly illustrate Krasner’s anti-police agenda in Philadelphia.”

‘Officer Bologna, we’ve done nothing wrong’: Two incidents in two days

When a SWAT unit unloaded tear gas on protestors in a Vine Street Expressway trench Monday, the Patrol Bureau was fresh off a catastrophic weekend that had seen multiple daytime organized protests and separate nighttime chaos.

After the tear-gassing, the unit swooped in on a splinter group of protestors near the Park Towne Place apartments. It’s still unclear why officers and protestors came to blows, but when Temple University student Evan Gorski attempted to intervene as officers tussled with another protestor, Bologna was filmed appearing to strike him with a collapsible baton, the Inquirer reported.

Temple student Gorski was initially arrested and accused of pushing a police officer off a bike. The charges were dropped shortly after the video –– now widely circulated on social media –– emerged.

“Officer Bologna,” one woman yells from off screen, “We’ve done nothing wrong.”

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Bologna was seen the next day sparring with protestors again. Another protest at 10th and Market, around 5:50 p.m. on Tuesday, was filmed marching down Market Street. Once again, members of the Patrol Bureau suddenly insert themselves into the crowd.

When an unidentified woman passed by Bologna he dropped a police bike to the ground and tackling her, video shows. The woman was later dragged kicking and screaming into a police vehicle, according to a WHYY reporter at the scene.

Scott Gross, one of the demonstrators who marched that day, witnessed the altercation.

“I saw a handful of bike cops move through the crowd. One of them suddenly grabbed a woman, then threw his bike to the side and threw her to the ground,” he said, referring to the staff inspector. “I ran over to try and put some space in between them, and he shoved me back hard with both hands yelling ‘Come on, try me.’”

Bologna, who earns $127,202 a year, did not respond to several requests for comment and the PPD refused to confirm the identities of any of the officers in either video, citing active Internal Affairs Bureau investigations into both use of force incidents.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office had no comment “on whether or not there is an ongoing investigation of this or any other matter” involving police handling of protesters.

Police spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew did acknowledge that Bologna commanded the unit visible in both videos. Records show the department currently only employs one individual with that surname.

Unlike other officers visible, Bologna wears a distinctive golden bicycle visor and name patch indicative of his rank. He has an arm tattoo visible in both videos. Protestors in the first video can be heard repeatedly referring to the staff inspector as “Officer Bologna.”

Gross, who witnessed the scene, independently identified Bologna from an image on his social media account. He said the protest had otherwise been peaceful prior to his arrival.

“It was the only time during four hours of demonstrating that day that I was genuinely afraid,” Gross said.

Despite scandals, Bologna rose through the ranks

As a commander, Bologna has been linked to uses of force and police abuses several times over the last decade.

The son of a longtime police officer of the same name, Bologna would come to work within the Eastern Division of the PPD’s Narcotics Field Unit in the early 2000s, around the same time as current Fraternal Order of Police union chief John McNesby. There, Bologna eventually oversaw a team of officers later accused of robbing convenience stores, who were infamously caught on tape disabling a surveillance camera inside a raid at a neighborhood bodega.

After the ensuing scandal, Bologna took over West Philadelphia’s struggling 19th District. While there, he espoused a “broken windows” policing philosophy, ordering officers to aggressively engage district residents over minor offenses –– from open containers to low-grade traffic violations –– in hopes of preventing larger crimes.

Also during his time in the 19th, officers on tactical squads that reported directly to Bologna attracted dozens and dozens of civilian complaints. Three men in his ranks were subject to 25 civilian complaints in a year and a half, among the highest rates on the roughly 6,500-officer force. Many detailed accounts of excessive force or, echoing the Tainted Justice scandal, warrantless searches or thefts.

Bologna received a merit promotion to a staff inspector position in 2017. Before being placed on the Patrol Bureau, he briefly led the Background and Recruitment unit, which is charged with bringing new officers into the department.

His rise through the ranks has troubled police watchdogs.

“The message you are sending to the other officers about accountability and discipline is that if you act out you get promoted,” said Mellon, the defender. “How is the public supposed to have trust in a system like that?”

As critics call for outside oversight groups to enforce discipline within the department and protestors call for defunding, Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney have struggled to keep up with both widespread unrest and complaints about excessive force this week. This week, Outlaw authored a department-wide memo instructing officers to report all use of force out on live radio.

In his estimation, Mellon said the two videos both appear to violate the department’s own use of force policies. As the footage swirled around social media, critics raised alarm at the allegations that a commanding officer may have instigated the altercations.

“It’s pretty clear in the video that the sudden violence was completely, wildly unnecessarily and perfectly encapsulates everything that we were marching against,” Gross said.

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