NJ community speaking out against corrupt cops
Camden police face "a deficit" of trust
CAMDEN, N.J. — At ground zero of the police corruption scandal in Camden, prayers for a community's rebirth are painted on boarded-up storefronts, fading old-timers drain bottles of cheap liquor on dirty porches, and young men waste away on trash-littered corners.
And nearly everyone in this Waterfront South neighborhood has a story about the officers at the center of the ongoing federal investigation.
"They were the dirtiest cops I ever seen," said Keith Sartin, standing in front of a park at Broadway and Ferry Avenue.
Interviews with more than two dozen residents last week added emotion to the spare comments from authorities Friday, when former Camden Police Officer Kevin Parry pleaded guilty in the case.
Parry acknowledged his role in a corrupt police operation that has led to charges being overturned or dismissed in 185 drug cases. Parry implicated four other officers.
Since December, dozens of low-level drug dealers and drug users have been released from prison, and their stories - coupled with a review of the convictions vacated by the court since December - indicate the accused officers claimed the Waterfront South neighborhood as their territory.
The officers are being investigated on allegations that they skimmed cash and planted drugs during illegal searches and illegal arrests. Parry, 29, entered his plea in U.S. District Court, saying he and four other officers stole drugs, stashed them around the city, and bribed people in exchange for information in at least 70 incidents.
In some cases, he said, additional drugs were planted on people to increase the charges. He said he and other officers had falsified police reports and lied in court.
Parry faces up to 10 years in prison and was released after he posted $100,000 bond.
Judge Robert B. Kugler specifically asked Parry, who joined the force in 2006, about five cases, including the arrest of Anthony Darrell Clark of Waterfront South.
Clark is in prison on other charges, but his mother, Vera Clark, described her son as "slow" and "emotionally disturbed," and said she didn't know one of his convictions had been vacated.
"I always thought he was framed," she said.
Around the corner, Marcus White, 23, was arrested on drug charges in 2008 and pleaded guilty for probation because, he said, he "didn't want to sit on any more time for something I didn't do."
Benjamin Daye, 23, wasn't as lucky. He served 34 months for an April 2007 drug arrest before being released last month on probation. Seven days later, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office vacated his case - a fact that he found out about Friday from a reporter.
Daye remembered the Saturday night on the corner when, he said, the cops threw him against a wall, searched his car, and found nothing. They put him in the back of a police cruiser, asked him for information on drug dealers, then planted drugs on him when he didn't talk, he said.
He said he had pleaded guilty, though, rather than fight the charges.
"With my prior, I had no chance of beating it," he said. "I took the bid and did the time."
Many of the false arrests in Camden during the last several years happened on these Waterfront South blocks at the bottom of Broadway near the Delaware River, where drug dealers take advantage of the mobility provided by two-way side streets and the proximity to I-676, community leaders said.
It's not far from Mount Ephraim Avenue, where, sources said, the unit - known as a "supplemental patrol" - operated out of a small clubhouse next to a Liquorama with more than a dozen officers.
The officers under investigation, according to sources, are Robert Bayard, Jason Stetser, Antonio Figuero, and Dan Morris, a sergeant. Bayard, Stetser, and Figueroa have been suspended without pay; Morris retired Jan. 1. None of the officers has responded to repeated requests for comment.
The struggles of Waterfront South are, in many respects, the struggles of Camden. The neighborhood is a cross section of abandoned buildings and rehabilitated homes, drug dealers and working families with children; it is the site of one of the strongest, most prolonged grassroots revitalization efforts in the city, which battles a criminal element that never seems to go away.
"We exist, community development corporations, to try to hold up so much of the failure of government," said Helene Pierson, executive director of Heart of Camden, the neighborhood's community-development corporation.
Pierson had come to believe that at least in public safety, the police force was a partner. Now she's not so sure.
The community "bought into the fact that police are stretched really thin, that they try really hard, that they need extra help."
"And when something like this happens, you think that's not the case at all, that they could do much better," she said. "It certainly starts to explain why you would see all this police activity and nothing really being solved."
Pierson said the corruption scandal had "solidified" the community's distrust, and would make it more difficult for those who work with police to "go back to the table with them."
"You feel more than ever like what is the point?" she said.
Police Chief Scott Thomson, who has been the face of policing in the city since rising through the ranks and reaching the helm of the department in 2008, said he knew the corruption "creates a deficit for this organization in its trust with the community."
But he is hoping there isn't permanent damage.
"I would think that the thousands and thousands of positive deposits in that relationship bank account we have with them would help offset that deficit," he said. "But actions speak louder than words, and how we get that trust back is through greater interaction with the community."
He stressed that the "vast majority of our cops are good, hardworking cops who put their lives on the line day in and day out."
But dating to at least 2008, authorities apparently suspected that something was awry with the special unit that often operated in Waterfront South.
In 2008, the intersection of Broadway and Viola was the site of an apparent attempt by authorities to catch some of the suspected officers.
Parry and Stetser, who was known on the streets as "Fat Face," were dispatched there that October, according to two police memos and interviews with two supervisors.
The officers reported finding a black Mazda containing several bags of drugs and a fake canister of WD-40 lubricant hiding $400. They grew suspicious when they heard a "click-click" and saw a telephoto camera lens sticking out of the window of an abandoned church.
After reporting their suspicions to headquarters, the officers were told to respond to reports of gunshots elsewhere. The drugs turned out to be phony, retired Lt. Jim Phillips has said, and the car was registered as an unmarked Gloucester Township police vehicle.
That corner shows a small sign of renewal: The abandoned church is the site of the new Camden Shipyard and Marine Museum.
And the Heart of Camden, affiliated with perhaps South Jersey's best-known pastor, Msgr. Michael Doyle, has had impressive results, with 200 rehabilitated homes, an art gallery, a greenhouse, a community center under construction, and the South Camden Theater due to open in June.
Maya Angelou poems are written on the boards of abandoned homes, and wooden crosses draped in red sashes are planted in vacant lots.
But the darker side of the neighborhood is evident, too. On Friday afternoon, a group gathered to share stories of encounters with these officers, the participants talking over one another in anger.
"Fat Face was a menace to society," said one teenager on a dirt bike, describing how officers had beaten people and stolen money and drugs from their pockets. "He'd throw packages on people who weren't even hustling."
Waterfront South is also known for its pervasive prostitution, and according to Parry's statement Friday, he and the other officers gave drugs to prostitutes in exchange for information on drug dealers.
One of the officers, according to Sartin, "made hookers do things they didn't want to do."
These officers are no longer in the neighborhood, but the people they arrested have returned - and community members throughout the city have expressed concern that since many of those who have been let out of prison had prior drug arrests, the bad guys are back on the streets.
Thomson, the police chief, said that "in the interest of justice, there's no other alternative" to releasing those arrested by the suspended officers.
"These guys have absolutely no credibility whatsoever, and we would not proceed with any judicial proceedings based on their words," he said. "The ends never justify the means."
Copyright 2010 Philadelphia Inquirer