PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Philadelphia’s police commissioner, along with the mayor, apologized to the public Thursday for giving statements that were inaccurate in the days after tear gas, bean bags and pepper spray were used against protesters who were trapped on a highway.
At least one high ranking commander took a voluntary demotion, and Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said a member of the city’s SWAT team who was seen in videos spraying protesters with pepper spray will be notified Friday that he is suspended with the intent to dismiss him. The apologies and personnel decisions came the same day The New York Times released a reconstructed video of the June 1 confrontation on Interstate 676.
“In the weeks that have followed, I have learned that relative to 676, those (previous) statements are substantively inaccurate as I have now personally viewed video evidence that largely contradicts the material portions of those statements,” Outlaw said at a news conference Thursday.
Outlaw issued an immediate moratorium on the use of tear gas in most situations including to disperse crowds of non-violent people.
Videos of Philadelphia police firing tear gas at dozens of protesters trapped on 676 by SWAT team officers on both sides, many unable to retreat to an on-ramp, clambering to get up a steep embankment then over a concrete wall and fence, were spread on social media across the country.
The footage has been held up by advocates of police reform as examples of what they say has been a militarized police response to protests against police brutality after George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes to pin him to the ground.
During the news conference Thursday, Deputy Commissioner of Special Operations Dennis Wilson said he had not notified or sought approval from Outlaw to deploy tear gas or other “less than lethal” weapons during the interaction with protesters on the interstate. He said he was voluntarily taking a demotion effective immediately in response.
Mayor Jim Kenney said he regretted giving the okay the day before the highway incident to use tear gas to disperse people in a much more violent protest in West Philadelphia, where stores had been broken into and a line of police cars was vandalized.
“In that moment of decision on Sunday, May 31, I ignored what my instincts told me,” he said, stressing his regret. “I have never believed tear gas was an effective tool. When I’ve seen other cities use it in protests. It always seemed to me to make situations worse. And it has.”
Both Outlaw and Kenney declined to speculate about whether previous reports given as part of a justification for the use of tear gas that a state trooper had been trapped in his car as protesters vandalized and rocked it back and forth, or that protesters were throwing projectiles at officers were true, saying the investigation is ongoing.
The Times’ video showed dashboard camera footage from the Pennsylvania State Police of an empty vehicle being vandalized. A previous statement from a state police spokesman confirmed that a state trooper had been on the highway to respond to the protesters and that a car was vandalized. A message from The Associated Press asking to clarify whether the trooper had left his car prior to the vandalism was left with state police.
Outlaw said a SWAT officer seen on video pulling down a protester’s mask and spraying them with pepper spray would be notified Friday that he was being suspended for 30 days with the intent to fire him, saying his conduct was a violation of the use of force guidelines. Outlaw said she was referring the investigation and findings to the District Attorney’s office to review.
District Attorney Larry Krasner filed aggravated assault charges earlier this month against officer Joseph Bologna who was filmed beating a protester with a retractable baton. The protester needed 10 staples and 10 stitches to close the wound and was arrested for assaulting an officer, though Krasner declined that charge against the protester.
Krasner also announced conspiracy aggravated assault charges against a Philadelphia man who was part of a group of men who assaulted a journalist and his girlfriend. Krasner said George Graf of Philadelphia was part of a group of mostly white men carrying baseball bats, pipes and other weapons, who went to the police substation in Fishtown saying they intended to protect it from protesters.
The WHYY journalist suffered a broken nose and other injuries. Court records did not show late Thursday whether Graf had an attorney.