Longform Philly

Month: September, 2016

The Painful Arc


Will Bunch | The Undefeated | August 2016

All those thousands of jump shots before breakfast, all the AAU and YMCA games where he perfected his long-range game, even the national championship he won with Roy Williams at North Carolina hadn’t prepared Wayne Ellington for this moment.

The musty mausoleum-like gym at North Philadelphia’s Girard College — where the 28-year-old Miami Heat shooting guard would feel most at home — was upstairs and empty for now. Instead, he was down in this sweltering basement on a brutal August afternoon, standing up to address about 50 young men and teens who were leaning forward on their hard metal chairs to hear the soft-spoken college standout turned NBA journeyman.

He clutched a white sheet of paper in his right hand, his shooting hand, and grasped to find the word or phrase that would persuade even one of these youths to steer clear of the gun violence that is epidemic in cities like Philadelphia – where a person is shot, on average, every six hours.

“My father was taken from me and my family by a senseless act of gun violence – a tragedy that shook up me and our family to our core,” Ellington told the players taking part in the first Philadelphia Peace Games tournament on Saturday to promote nonviolence through basketball. “I want to do anything in my power to prevent this from happening to another family. Change starts with us, and I really believe that you all have a choice, to say no to violence.”

Two years ago, Ellington would have had only a shared love for the hardwood in common with these young men. That was before the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2014. That’s when 57-year-old Wayne Ellington Sr., who lived in the racially mixed, middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown, sent a pregame good-luck text to his son (then a Los Angeles Laker), got into his red Oldsmobile, then got into a heated discussion with a 34-year-old man standing outside the car who took out a gun and shot him in the head.

Writer bio: Will Bunch is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Tear Down This Myth” and “The Backlash.” He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting with a group of New York Newsday reporters who covered a deadly Manhattan subway derailment in 1991.

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The War Against Bad Cops

APTOPIX Philadelphia Officer Shot

David Gambacorta | Philadelphia Magazine | October 2015

IT WAS TIME for Chuck Ramsey to tell everybody a story. Philadelphia’s police commissioner is an artist behind a podium, as comfortable as an old guitarist on a concert stage, shifting effortlessly between folksy charm and eloquence.

But there was no trace of Ramsey the showman on this July morning in 2014. The conference room in the Chestnut Street headquarters of the U.S. Attorney’s Office was lousy with reporters, all of us speed-reading a jaw-dropping 42-page indictment and pounding out one-sentence highlights on our cell phones. The commissioner stood quietly, looking miserable and exhausted, like a gravedigger at the end of a busy day.

Ramsey told us the case was one of the worst examples of police corruption he’d ever seen. And he’s seen plenty. In a nearly 50-year policing career that has taken him from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, Ramsey has encountered just about every crooked-cop trope imaginable — the drunks, the wife-beaters, the shakedown artists and thieves. He’s kicked at least 160 cops to the curb in Philadelphia alone, but that number really doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Each case is maddening. Each one gnaws at Ramsey.

Some of the lowlights have stood out more than others. In 2010, officer Kenneth Crockett was caught stealing $825 from a Frankford bar while responding to a burglar alarm in the wee hours. Small potatoes, maybe, except for the fact that the bar was Pat’s Café, where officer Gary Skerski took his final steps before a shotgun blasted him in the neck in 2006. A cop ripping off a bar was bad enough, but that bar?

Then there was Ron Dove, a walking, talking plot of a Lifetime movie. After his girlfriend allegedly stabbed her ex-boyfriend to death in 2013, police charge, Dove — a veteran homicide detective — went off the deep end. A grand jury found that he fed one line of bullshit after another to detectives who were investigating the murder, working overtime to cover his girlfriend’s tracks. His acts of devotion allegedly included stashing her car in a garage, secreting her away in a hotel in upstate New York, and supplying her with a burner phone from Walmart. (Dove has yet to go to trial.)

Even the bosses, the people Ramsey relied on to set a straight-and-narrow example, were the source of double-Excedrin migraines. In 2012, the Daily News uncovered a string of sexual harassment allegations that had been leveled against an array of commanding officers, including a captain and two inspectors — all of whom kept climbing the career ladder despite a litany of lawsuits and complaints.

The crime allegations and embarrassing behavior knew no boundaries, which suggested that a larger, systemic problem was plaguing the police department, eating away at its credibility. Were people acting this way because they thought they could get away with it, because they’d watched others do the same before?

That was the poisonous notion Ramsey hoped to dispel for good when he took to that podium in 2014, alongside members of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and excommunicated six Philadelphia narcotics cops from the law-enforcement world — Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, John Speiser, Perry Betts, Michael Spicer and Linwood Norman.

According to the indictment, they weren’t just bad cops; the squad was a Martin Scorcese fever dream come to life. They were accused of beating, robbing and kidnapping suspected drug dealers across the city during a six-year reign of terror, using their badges as battering rams as they pocketed $500,000 worth of cash, drugs and loot. You wouldn’t play ball and tell them where the cash was stashed? Bang! Goodbye, teeth, the indictment alleged. Or maybe you’d be more cooperative after being dangled over the side of an 18th-floor apartment balcony.

This was way more than just a public relations dumpster fire that needed to be stamped out. The entire case shouted not only that corruption was tolerated within the police department, but that it flourished. The arrests of the six officers were supposed to represent something big, a decisive moral victory in a battle Ramsey had been fighting since he got here — a battle for the soul of the department.

Their badges, Ramsey later said. We’ll destroy them. Melt them.

Writer bio: David Gambacorta, a Philly native, wrote about crime, police corruption and politics at the Philadelphia Daily News for more than 10 years. He joined Philadelphia Magazine as a senior reporter in 2016.

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