Two police officers in Philadelphia have been charged with beating a man nearly two years ago and claiming that he attacked them, authorities said this week.
The charges, which come amid a heightened focus on police tactics in the country, came as a result of surveillance footage showing that the officers, rather than being assaulted as they had reported, knocked the man off a motor scooter before beating him so severely he required stitches and staples, according to a grand jury report, the Philadelphia district attorney and the city’s police commissioner.
“The same rules should apply to everyone,” Seth Williams, Philadelphia’s district attorney, said Thursday at a news conference announcing the charges. “Rich or poor, black or white, or a sworn officer with a badge.”
A grand jury had investigated the May 2013 incident after Williams’s office received surveillance video from the scene. The grand jury said in its findings that Sean McKnight and Kevin Robinson, the two Philadelphia police officers, “assaulted Najee Rivera by knocking him off of his motor scooter and then hitting him repeatedly with a baton and fists causing him bodily injury, including a fractured orbital and numerous facial cuts requiring stitches and staples.”
Rivera was driving a motor scooter in north Philadelphia at night when the police pulled him over. In his grand jury testimony, Rivera said that the officers got out of their car with their batons out and said “Come here!”, so he got scared and began driving away.
The surveillance video showed the police car, without its lights or siren activated and not issuing any commands, hitting Rivera on his scooter and knocking him onto the ground, according to the grand jury presentation. This video then shows the officers getting out of the car and hitting Rivera with a baton, first while being held against a wall and then while he was on the ground.
This is how the grand jury presentation describes the scene:
Throughout the entire encounter that is captured on the video, Rivera was wailing loudly and uncontrollably. Although he was moving around on the ground while being struck, he was not resisting the officers or engaging in any aggressive actions. After about 40 seconds of continued repeated strikes, McKnight and Robinson placed Rivera into handcuffs and held him down with a foot on his back. For at least four minutes, either McKnight or Robinson kept a foot on Rivera’s back as he lay on the ground bleeding.
Rivera was taken a short time later to a nearby hospital and treated for several cuts to his face and head before he was arrested. Meanwhile, the two officers filled out a police report stating that Rivera had thrown one of them “into a brick wall” before throwing “multiple elbows.”
The grand jury said it ultimately determined that this “false and inaccurate description of the incident is directly refuted by the video” and recommended charges of aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, filing false reports, tampering with public records and official oppression.
Attorneys for McKnight and Robinson told the Associated Press that Rivera had created a risk when he fled the police.
Charles H. Ramsey, the Philadelphia police commissioner, joined Williams at the news conference Thursday and described the situation as “painful.” He said the two officers have been suspended and would likely be fired.
“Every one of these people who get removed from our department brings us a step closer to having the kind of police department that people in this city deserve and that the members of this department who are doing their job the right way deserve to work alongside,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey acknowledged that it had “not been easy” for his department this week. A day before these officers were charged, two former Philadelphia police officers were sentenced to prison for corruption. And earlier in the week, Williams’s office charged Brandon Ruff, a 28-year-old police sergeant, with falsely identifying himself before law enforcement officers. Ruff had gone into a different district’s police headquarters and given a fake name while trying to surrender three guns, Williams’s office said.
This announcement comes as an ongoing debate continues regarding when and how police use force, a topic that dominated the news for long stretches last year after the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. In both of those cases, the officers involved were not charged, leading to renewed protests across the country.
While many of the demonstrations have focused specifically on deadly force, protesters and activists have also talked about police tactics generally; they have called for increased police training and body cameras, among other things.