Philly SWAT officer criminally charged after pepper-spraying kneeling protesters

Police load arrested protesters into a Sheriff’s Office bus after closing Route 676 in both directions.

Police load arrested protesters into a Sheriff’s Office bus after closing Route 676 in both directions. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated: 2 p.m.

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A Philadelphia SWAT officer is facing criminal charges after video captured him pepper-spraying three protesters at close range during a demonstration on the Vine Street Expressway.

Richard Nicoletti turned himself in on Wednesday, according to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. He is charged with simple assault, reckless endangerment, official oppression and possessing an instrument of crime — all misdemeanors.

“The complaint alleges that Officer Nicoletti broke the laws he was sworn to uphold and that his actions interfered with Philadelphians’ and Americans’ peaceful exercise of their sacred constitutional rights of free speech and assembly,” said District Attorney Larry Krasner in a statement.

Nicoletti’s lawyer and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 both said the charges against Nicoletti represent a “double-standard” of justice.

“His unit was ordered by commanders to clear the highway with the approved use of tear gas and pepper spray. The city’s leadership was given the opportunity to apologize for approving the orders and use of force, but Nicoletti finds himself fired and charged with crimes,” defense attorney Fortunato Perri Jr. said in a statement.

“Krasner refuses to hold unlawful protesters accountable, those who set fire and looted our great city. His top priority is to push his anti-police agenda,” added FOP President John McNesby in a statement.

On June 1, hundreds of protesters blocked traffic on I-676 during a massive demonstration against police brutality. Video footage from that day shows police using tear gas to disperse the crowd, then again as they tried scrambling up a steep embankment on the side of the highway.

Police arrest dozens of protesters on Route 676 near 21st Street after they blocked traffic.
Police line up protesters after tear gas was used on I-676 in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the midst of the chaotic scene, Nicoletti can be seen at 4:34 on this video obtained by the New York Times pepper-spraying three protesters kneeling or sitting in the middle of the roadway — all at close range. He’s seen spraying two women directly in the face, pulling down the face mask of the first woman. Then, Nicoletti can be seen spraying a third protester, a man sitting hunched over with his legs crossed, before throwing him to the ground and spraying him a second time.

None of the protesters were given medical treatment, guided to safety or taken into custody.

During a short news conference on Thursday, prosecutors told reporters that Nicoletti, who has no criminal record, would not serve serious prison time if he is convicted.

“Nothing lengthy,” said Assistant District Attorney Tracy Tripp.

City officials initially said police used tear gas after the demonstration turned hostile. They later apologized after no evidence surfaced to support claims that some protesters were throwing rocks and rocking a state police car while a trooper was inside.

Dozens of protesters who clashed with police during the demonstration are now suing the city in federal court over its use of tear gas on the Vine Street Expressway in Center City and 52nd Street in West Philadelphia.

The city now has a moratorium on using tear gas for crowd control.

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