Three Philadelphia police officers were called to face criminal charges last week in separate and unrelated incidents, where those who carry a badge were accused of crossing the line.
Two of those officers, Sheldon Fitzgerald and Howard Hill, both of the 25th Police District, were placed under arrest, accused of severely beating a man they found putting graffiti on a wall at Fourth and Wyoming streets last August and then trying to cover up the incident.
Fitzgerald and Hill face charges of aggravated assault, tampering with public records, conspiracy and simple assault and tampering with public records.
A second officer, Malik Snell, 35, an 11-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, was indicted this week by the United States Attorney’s Office.
Snell is charged with participating in an attempted robbery in December 2007 that precipitated a police chase and ended with an auto accident.
Snell and his alleged accomplices, Tyree Aimes and Stephon Gibson, have been charged with conspiracy to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery, attempted interference with interstate commerce by robbery and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Snell, Fitzgerald and Hill are the latest casualties of the Philadelphia Police Department to face either disciplinary actions or more serious charges for misconduct.
Four officers were dismissed last month from the force and four more face stern measures for a May 5 incident when three shooting suspects were allegedly assaulted by police.
Some of those officers also may face criminal charges should the grand jury’s investigation finds sufficient evidence, Abraham said.
District Attorney Lynne Abraham said that on the night of Aug. 26, Fitzgerald and Hill were on patrol in the vicinity of Fourth and Wyoming streets when they saw David Vernitsky, 36, spray-painting a wall.
Vernitsky had been to a wedding with friends that night and thought it would be fun to offer congratulations in graffiti.
“Vernitsky fled on foot when Officers Fitzgerald and Hill approached him,” Abraham said. “They caught up to him and allegedly beat him with their fists, striking him repeatedly in the face and ribs. The male was also allegedly kicked in the groin during the incident.”
Abraham said Fitzgerald and Hill handcuffed Vernitsky and threw him head first into the back seat of their patrol car. Then they ran a check on him for outstanding warrants. They found none and then let Vernitsky go at Third and Wyoming streets.
Vernitsky had been at a nearby wedding and his friends took him to Albert Einstein Medical Center, where he was treated for his injuries.
“He received surgery to repair a broken jaw that he sustained as a result of the alleged assault. It was necessary to wire his jaw shut for five weeks in order for it to heal properly. He also lost three teeth,” Abraham said. “Finally, it is alleged that Fitzgerald and Hill did not document their contact with Vernitsky in any way, and that they made a false entry in their patrol log showing that they were at another location at the time of the incident.”
The charges against Fitzgerald and Hill are the result of a joint investigation by the DA’s Office, the PPD’s Internal Affairs Division and Hill and Fitzgerald are awaiting trial. While the charges against these officers are serious enough, but if Snell is found guilty of all charges, it could mean a life sentence.
According to federal authorities, Snell, who was attached to 18th District in Southwest Philadelphia, planned the robbery of a Pottstown drug dealer with Aimes and Gibson.
Federal authorities allege that Snell, who had brought along a Colt .380 semiautomatic handgun, allegedly drove Aimes and Gibson from Philadelphia to an apartment at 14 South Roland St. in Pottstown, Pa.
According to authorities, the trio had knowledge that a local drug dealer kept his profits at that apartment and they planned to rip him off.
The name of the dealer has not been released.
The attempted robbery failed because Snell and his pals were unable to locate the drug money and left empty-handed.
During the attempted robbery, one of the victims was struck on the head and the other victim was tied up with an electrical cord.
After the robbery attempt, Snell and Aimes fled the scene in Snell’s vehicle, leading Pottstown Police on a high-speed chase that ended after Snell crashed his car into another vehicle, injuring the passengers in that vehicle.
Snell, Gibson and Aimes continued to try and evade police, running away on foot until they were found and arrested with the help of a canine unit.
If convicted of all charges, each defendant faces a total maximum sentence of life imprisonment, including a 5-year mandatory minimum, a $750,000 fine, three years of supervised release, and a $300 special assessment.
“The actions of these officers is in no way a reflection of the entire department,” said Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “I do think it’s an understatement that excessive force simply will not be tolerated in our department. It’s very unfortunate in the sense that, in light of the most recent videotaped incident, these things following in short order.”