Physical assault: practically legal in Philadelphia

    If someone pounds on a stranger in broad daylight on a Philadelphia sidewalk in front of several witnesses, and the police have the license number of the car he was driving but won’t investigate, what are we to conclude?

    I’m sure it’s against the law to murder journalists in Russia. But if the crimes are never investigated and solved, does the law even matter?

    If someone pounds on a stranger in broad daylight on a Philadelphia sidewalk in front of several witnesses, and the police have the license number of the car he was driving but won’t investigate, what are we to conclude?

    Here’s what happened to a public official I know who is completely credible, but doesn’t want me to use his name. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call him Ted.

    Ted and his girlfriend were walking their dog in Chestnut Hill, and were about to cross Germantown Avenue at Highland in a crosswalk that had an upright marker warning drivers to yield to pedestrians. A driver who had been stopped at a red light and was making a turn onto Germantown accelerated as the couple approached the crosswalk, forcing them to step back and pull the dog back. As Ted stepped back, he said he put his right hand out and pressed his open palm on the driver’s window (the car was within 18 inches from him, he said).

    The car stopped, the enraged driver got out, and said, “You touched my car?”

    Ted calmly told the driver that the law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, and began walking across the street away from him.

    The driver followed him on foot, repeating, “Are you f’in kidding me? You hit my car!”

    Ted was walking away and had his back turned to the driver as he stepped onto the sidewalk, when the driver punched him in rapid succession – first in the back of his head from behind, and then in his face.

    Ted told the driver he’d committed an assault, and went to look at his license plate.

    The driver got back in his car and left, leaving Ted with a bloody nose and swollen and cut lips. There were several witnesses to the whole thing.

    Ted called 9-1-1, and a uniformed officer from the 14th District arrived and took a report, including the license plate of the driver. He told Ted he would be contacted by someone from Northwest Detectives.

    Here’s what happened then:

    1. Two weeks later, no one from Northwest detectives had called.

    2. Ted called Northwest Detectives, and was told they’d never gotten the complaint, that he needed to follow up with the 14th District.

    3. Ted called the 14th District and was told he’d have to file a private criminal complaint with the DA’s office.

    4. Ted went to the Private Criminal Complaint Unit and was told that before he could file a complaint, he would have to go to the 14th District and do a “photo line-up,” where they show him a photo of the owner of the car along with other photos, but only if the owner is a male. If the owner is female, he was told that would end the matter because the police would not pursue it any further. The same would happen if the owner is a male, but not the driver (they wouldn’t look any further for the driver). If Ted could identify his assailant this way, he could come back and pay a $39 fee to file a complaint against him.

    5. Ted went to the 14th District, where he learned they can’t do photo line-ups. He would have to go to Northwest detectives to do that. When he explained the 14th hadn’t forwarded the complaint to the detectives, they did that (electronically) while he was there. He was told to call Northwest detectives to arrange a photo line-up. Ted says he’ll look for a time to do that.

    It’s been weeks since this happened, and what have we learned?

    The guy in the car has learned that you can hit stranger in the streets of Philadelphia if you feel like it, and nothing happens.

    And Ted and his girlfriend must be thinking about moving some place where physical assaults like this are actually investigated.

    I ran this sequence of events past a former Philadelphia police commander I know and respect. He said there was an error in procedure in Ted’s case, that he shouldn’t have been sent to the DA’s office by the 14th District. He said the detectives at Northwest should have gotten the complaint and arranged the photo line-up, so Ted could hopefully get the identity of his assailant and then file a private criminal complaint.

    But the former commander confirmed it’s Philadelphia Police Department policy that in cases of misdemeanor assault that aren’t observed by police, victims are told to pursue it through a private criminal complaint. That can result in an arrest, and might end in mediation, or a conviction and punishment.

    The former commander, who also has experience outside Philadelphia, said that if such a thing were to happen in the suburbs, the police would investigate themselves. It wouldn’t be hard for a detective to visit the registered owner of the car within a day or so, ask if he’d had an altercation with a pedestrian, and if he didn’t, who was driving the car at the time of the assault.

    The former commander said the reason Philadelphia handles such cases differently “is purely related to workload. There’s no way the Philadelphia Police Department could handle the number of misdemeanor assaults in the city” if the police independently investigated every one.

    He said he understood how the victim in a case like this would feel.”It’s incredibly frustrating,” he said, “because to the victim, it’s easy for the police to solve if they want to solve it.”

    I’ll have more thoughts on this tomorrow, along with another tale – one involving my son and detectives in New York City. In the meantime, what do you think? Do we have to accept that incidents like these are handled this way?

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