The DeCoatsworth story: a man’s descent or a system’s failure?
Richard DeCoatsworth, a 27-year-old Philadelphia ex-police officer once called a hero after surviving a bullet to the face during a routine traffic stop, was arrested this weekend on suspicion of drugging and raping two women he held captive at gunpoint. His bail is set at $60 million.
According to the Philadelphia Daily News, a second current case against DeCoatsworth “involves allegations of aggravated assault, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person for an alleged May 9 incident at his Port Richmond house involving his 27-year-old girlfriend.” Furthermore, over the past several years, there have been many other allegations filed against the ex-officer — so many, in fact, that the Daily News has also published an interactive timeline of them all.
Despite DeCoatsworth’s history of violence, the story is playing out in the media, locally and nationally, as a hero cop’s shocking fall from grace. For example, from PhillyMag.com: “It’s hard to see the story of Richard DeCoatsworth as anything but a tragedy. You’ll remember him: He was the Philly cop shot in the face a couple of years ago, who still managed to pursue his attacker even while bleeding badly. He underwent surgeries, and ended up standing next to Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address. Now it’s all come undone.”
But the reality is more complicated than the simple “From hero to zero!” that someone posted on my Facebook wall. As evidenced on the DN’s timeline — or from a quick Google search — DeCoatsworth’s downward spiral has been public and continuous.
Here’s one thought: It’s possible that he could have been a decent enough guy whose injury traumatized and overwhelmed him.
The public record isn’t able to say; DeCoatsworth was barely seven months out of the police academy when he was shot in 2007. A spokesperson for the PPD, Lt. John Stanford, confirms that the young officer had earned “no prior recognition” before the day he was shot.
After DeCoatsworth’s retirement last December, Commissioner Charles Ramsey told the Daily News he felt “bad” because “I don’t think we did enough to help this kid.” We don’t know exactly what the PPD did do to help him; Lt. Stanford says protocol requires officers involved in shooting-related incidents to visit with a counselor, but they are not obligated to follow up beyond that.
Since 2007, the PPD has worked with Penn Behavioral Health Corporate Services, an external employee assistance program run by the University of Pennsylvania’s psychiatry department. According to a document written by Paul Rusch, director of marketing, contracts and business development, PHCS worked closely with the department and the Fraternal Order of Police to develop a trauma support program that acknowledged the unique needs and culture of police officers.
“There is not an immediate acceptance for a program that is based on providing help for individuals in need,” wrote Rusch in a summary of the program he sent to PW. “Officers do not generally think of themselves as ‘having needs, problems, issues, or concerns.’”
Due to privacy concerns, Stanford can’t confirm what counseling DeCoatsworth may have received. So, there’s no way to assess, from the outside, exactly how the trauma of being shot in the face has impacted DeCoatsworth. The one thing we do know is that he was showered with accolades of heroism entirely based on having suffered that tragedy.
“It’s really the media” that declared DeCoatsworth a hero, Stanford points out — noting, of course: “But we have some true heroes on this job.”
It’s not just the media, though. The local Fraternal Order of Police has promoted the same simplistic idea: that risking violence, in and of itself, makes any given cop a hero, regardless of what that one cop may have done wrong.
Take one of DeCoatsworth’s many career low-lights: In June 2010, he allegedly gripped up Columbia University professor and Philadelphia resident Professor Marc Lamont Hill during a traffic stop.
In a 2011 account of the incident, Hill, who is black, wrote that he was pulled over by DeCoatsworth, a Latino, while simply dropping a friend off at a home in the Logan neighborhood of Philadelphia:
By the end of the stop, I had been forced out of my car and subjected to a search of my body without probable cause and a search of every part of my BMW except for the trunk. I was subjected to unnecessary physical force, threats of being put in jail and a series of condescending questions like, ‘How can you afford this car?’ and ‘Why are you on this side of Broad Street?’
In fact, it wasn’t until the policeman discovered that I was a college professor and media pundit that he changed his tune, allowing me to go home without a citation and ordering me, without any sense of irony, to ‘have a good night.’”
The reason that I was stopped, you ask? “Illegal discharge of a passenger.”
Hill filed a complaint with Internal Affairs and a lawsuit in federal court over the incident. He declined interviews about the incident and suit in order to avoid accusations of using it to seek publicity—which he was accused of anyway. Meanwhile, he offered up the idea that, perhaps, DeCoatsworth was a traumatized person struggling to cope:
“Since the incident, I’ve thought about DeCoatsworth … I’ve wondered whether his tragic shooting has put him in a permanent state of trauma, causing him to find danger where there is none. I’ve wondered if he was a good cop at heart, who became cynical and overly aggressive after spending a few short years trying to navigate a broken system.”
Hill may have been willing to give DeCoatsworth the benefit of the doubt, but the Fraternal Order of Police wasn’t willing to extend Hill the same consideration. When the city settled with Hill — Hill says he received $15,000 — local FOP president John McNesby still dismissed Hill’s version of events and supported DeCoatsworth:
“Officer Richard DeCoatsworth was looking forward to presenting his side of the story. But, of course, the city ultimately just pays and opens its checkbook. We’re in a budget crisis here. You’d think they would send a message to people that sue [with] frivolous nonsense lawsuits.”
In retrospect, the “frivolous” lawsuit looks more like a legitimate red flag — one of many that could and should have prompted a deeper investigation of DeCoatsworth’s behavior and mental health before something worse happened.
But in Philly, the FOP infamously backs cops no matter what. Well, almost no matter what: Daily News’ William Bender wrote a piece last year detailing the FOP’s highly unusual move to expel former police captain Ray Lewis and strip him of union benefits. Lewis’ crime? Showing up at Occupy Wall Street events wearing his uniform. As Bender pointed out, this is the same FOP that supported a cop who allegedly beat his girlfriend, another who was convicted of child endangerment after “pointing a loaded Glock at a kid who changed the radio station in his truck at the police academy,” and another who allegedly forced a suspect to perform oral sex on him in his police cruiser.
Meanwhile, prior to DeCoatsworth’s arrest last week, Hill had already dismissed his own generous theory about the ex-officer being just a good guy who broke bad.
After his run-in with DeCoatsworth, Hill tells PW, “even police officers emailed me—‘Yo, this is a guy you don’t want to deal with.’ It was remarkable, because it was uninvited.” Hill says residents of DeCoatsworth’s neighborhood told him the same thing, a sentiment heard again by reporters asking around in the wake of the most recent arrest. In February 2012, a former neighbor filed a complaint that resulted in a “mutual stay-away order” after the neighbor, who owed DeCoatworth money, accused the former officer of forcing him into his truck and threatening him.
So, he’s annoyed to hear and see the fallen-hero media narrative that’s now emerged around DeCoatsworth’s arrest. “We have a blue wall of silence that operates on the assumption that police are in the right,” he says — even when it should be apparent that something, or someone, is going wrong.
While there’s a long history of Philadelphia police corruption and circling the wagons when caught — increasingly, caught by citizens on phone video, as was the case with the officer taped punching a woman in the face at a Puerto Rican parade last fall — an remarkable split has emerged where this “blue wall of silence” is perpetuated by the Fraternal Order of Police while criticized by the police commissioner.
That cultural tension is playing out in the arbitration room. Within his first two and a half years on the job, Commissioner Ramsey fired 55 officers in a publicized effort to weed out the “bad apples.” A report issued in March revealed that, thanks to the efforts of the police union, 90 percent of those officers were re-hired.
Like he did with so, so many others, McNesby has been publicly defending DeCoatsworth these last few years. His comment when DeCoatsworth’s apparent crime spree ended with the alleged drugging and rape of two women? “[He is] one that slipped through the cracks,” McNesby told the Philadelphia Daily News. report. “It was obviously something that wasn’t right there.”