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The D.A. denies stalling; experts say cases are tricky. Still, the commissioner and families want answers.

By Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA - At midnight on New Year's Eve in 2007, Philadelphia police responded to a call that revelers were shooting guns into the air in Overbrook. Police said that when they arrived, teens began to fire on the officers.
Police took aim at Bryan Jones, 20, a deli clerk whose family said he was accompanying his nephew home when the confusion broke out. Police said Jones had reached into his waistband.
Jones died from a head wound. He was unarmed.
Twenty months later, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's office is still investigating. The death remains unresolved - not only for Jones' family, but also for the officer who fired the fatal bullet, who still potentially faces discipline.
"We can't put this behind us," said the victim's older brother, Christopher, 24. He said his mother, Gloria, had suffered from depression since her youngest son died.
The Jones case is not unique. The Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission is monitoring at least nine complaints about police killings of civilians since 2006 that prosecutors are still investigating.
Another case awaiting resolution is the May beating of three suspects that a Fox29 helicopter crew videotaped. The Police Department responded swiftly, disciplining eight officers within two weeks. More than three months have passed without word of the status of the district attorney's investigation.
Until the district attorney decides whether to file criminal charges, the cases hang in suspense: The families cannot get closure, and the Police Department cannot interview the officers, who often remain on desk duty for months until the case is resolved.
Christopher Jones said he was suspicious of the process. "It's like the higher authorities are protecting this individual or individuals," he said.
His family filed a federal lawsuit in July against the department, naming Officer Steven Szczepkowski, who returned to active duty late last year. The suit also includes five unidentified officers.
Civilian watchdogs say the district attorney's indecision creates an impression that the authorities are unwilling to police themselves. They say the inaction undermines trust in law enforcement and discourages civilians from cooperating with police.
"The public perception is of a whitewash, and whether it's true or not, the public perception is just as important," said Robert S. Nix, chairman of the Police Advisory Commission, a civilian oversight agency.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has encouraged the district attorney to speed up inquiries to help build public trust.
"The faster these matters are resolved, irrespective of the outcome, the more faith people have in the process," Ramsey said. "But when you have to wait a year, two years, it's an issue of public confidence."
Cathie Abookire, Abraham's spokeswoman, declined to comment on specific investigations. In a written response, she said there was "no simple answer because each case is factually unique, and there are a myriad of factors which inevitably influence the course and length of an investigation."
Abraham, who plans to retire at the end of next year after nearly 19 years in office, has bristled at suggestions that her office was slow to pursue allegations against police.
"Just give me the case where I didn't come forward," Abraham, 67, said in May. "You can't give me one. That's why I'm challenging you. . . . Just come up with one case that I deep-sixed."
Indeed, defense advocates say they have no evidence that prosecutors quash investigations. They say they simply have no idea why investigations take so long, partly because prosecutors reveal so little about their inquests.
"To be honest, when you compare these fatal-shooting cases, there is no rhyme or reason why they take so much time in Philadelphia," said William Johnson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission.
"I'm not sure if it's a resource issue or the difficulty prosecuting police," said David Rudovsky, a prominent civil-rights lawyer.
He said the pace of the investigation into the January killing of Timothy J. Goode was typical. "It's not the most complicated case," said Rudovsky, who is representing Goode's family.
Goode, 24, a grandnephew of former Mayor W. Wilson Goode's, was gunned down in Germantown by an undercover officer during a drug sting. Police said he had been shot when he turned and pointed a gun at pursuing officers. Goode's family said he had been shot in the back.
Rudovsky said the prosecutors had plenty of evidence and witnesses. "It's not something that should take that long," he said.
Not all investigations of police move slowly.
In 1991, a Los Angeles grand jury indicted four officers 11 days after the beating of motorist Rodney King was captured on video. They were acquitted in a trial less than 14 months after the beating.
Last year, a New York City grand jury indicted three officers four months after Sean Bell died outside a Queens strip club in a hail of police bullets. The officers were acquitted in April, 17 months after the killing.
Ramsey said investigators needed to examine complaints against police carefully because "careers are on the line." But he said the investigations must be done promptly "so that people will feel that the matter is being taken seriously - we're not sitting on it waiting for it to go away. It's a real fine line."
Legal experts say investigations of police are more complicated than civilian criminal investigations.
Witnesses are often reluctant to come forward or refuse to be interviewed, especially if they have civil cases pending against the police. And courts have ruled that officers under investigation can't be interviewed.
Abraham's office, after two prominent failed attempts to prosecute officers for civilian deaths in the 1990s, has rarely charged police. In the most recent case, a Common Pleas Court judge on Aug. 1 threw out charges against Officer Chad Gugger, 30, in an assault trial involving a 2005 drug arrest. The judge said the evidence was hopelessly inconsistent.
Nix, the Police Advisory Commission chairman, said the district attorney's relationship with police also could slow prosecutors. "The D.A. has to investigate the police and work with these guys every day," he said. "If I were the D.A., I'd want to get it right."
Some lawyers say that prosecutors and police do not always notify families when their investigations are complete, and that if they do, the letters are vague.
"You have no idea what happened," defense lawyer Alan L. Yatvin said.
R. Seth Williams, who opposed Abraham in the 2005 Democratic primary, said prosecutors' failure to communicate the conclusions of investigations is the biggest problem.
"I think if they let the public know, the community would have a greater sense of trust," he said. "If it's not being communicated, the public just defaults to a position that it's not being done."

Wire Service
 
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