Why Do My Favorite Cops Always Turn Out To Be Crooked?

by Jamison Koehler on May 11, 2010

I am walking with my kids at the Reading Terminal, an eatery just a couple of blocks from the courthouse in Philadelphia, when we come across a group of narcotics officers sitting in the eating area.  We have been watching “The Wire” on HBO, and I point out the officers out to my kids.  Look, I say.  Real-life narcotics officers.  Just like on T.V.

The officers see me gesturing toward them, and they smile and wave.  I walk over and we exchange some pleasantries. “So, counselor,” one of them says to me.  “Beat up on any good cops recently on the witness stand?”  We laugh.  I am showing off to my kids.  Maybe they won’t think I am such a loser.

I know Officer Wolf was there that afternoon, because he was always my favorite.  He’s a short, stocky guy with a crew cut and a wry grin.  We barely look at each other inside the courtroom because most clients don’t like to see their lawyer being too chummy with the enemy.  But sometimes outside the courtroom, when no one else is paying too close attention, we kid each other and talk about the latest episode of “The Wire.”  It is the favorite T.V. show of all the narcotics officers, he says, because it is so realistic.

I like that Wolf never asks me anything about my cases, as some of the other officers  sometimes do.  “Whatcha doing with my case, counselor?” some of them occasionally ask, approaching me at counsel table.  “I’m trying to get out of here early today.”  But Wolf is difficult to cross-examine because he never offers up much.  Just enough to convict, and in that sense he is a very dangerous witness.  There is never any posturing or exaggeration or defensiveness to his testimony.  Just the facts.

Other than Wolf, I can’t remember who else was there at the Reading Terminal that day. Officer Floyd, maybe.  One of the Devlins probably, either Sean or Kevin. Maybe Officer Kelly, before he was reassigned to work for the Governor’s Task Force on drug interdiction.  And if Boies was there, so was Carr.  Two big, beefy white guys.  I could never remember which one was Boies and which one was Carr, but it didn’t matter.  You never saw one without the other.

One time I subpoenaed Officer Whitehall to testify for a client.  My client was saying the drugs weren’t his, that they belonged to his father who had been dealing heroin out of the house.  Whitehall could confirm that he had arrested the father a week or two earlier for the very same offense, that everything they found in my client’s house could just as easily have belonged to his father.

Whitehall approaches me at the beginning of the morning. He has already talked with the prosecutor about his testimony on other.  “Do I need to check in with you?” he asks.  He is tall, clean-cut and very good-looking. There are rumors he is dating one of the prosecutors.

No need, I respond.  But let’s talk.  We go out into the hallway. Other officers standing in the hall notice us huddled there together. They snicker and point at Whitehall. We both laugh at the awkwardness of it all.

I’ll help you with your case, Whitehall says to me.  I wonder how many times he has said this to a prosecutor.  No problem, I say.  Just answer my questions. Just tell the truth.

I do know that Officer Cujdik wasn’t there at the Reading Terminal that day because I would have remembered that. Cujdik is a big man with a big personality.  He is always at the center of the group whenever you see him with other cops. His brother is a cop.  So was his father. He gave me a real hard time for getting his name wrong the first time I cross-examined him.  Despite the spelling, the name was pronounced “Chuddick.” Everyone in Philadelphia knows that.  Everyone, apparently, except for me.

And, as it turns out, in addition to being charismatic and popular, Cujdik is also horribly corrupt.  The stories begin to trickle out of the Philadelphia Daily News beginning last spring, a series of articles on corruption within the narcotics unit that culminated last week with a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.

Cujdik tips off his favorite informer to the location of guns so that the informer can turn in the guns for dollars.  The informer leases an apartment from Cujdik for an exorbitantly high rent.  That’s how he kicks back the money to Cujdik.  Cujdik sends the informer to buy drugs at one house that is under surveillance. When the informer comes back empty-handed – “they’re not selling” – Cujdik sends him to another house where drugs are being sold.  Cujdik then swears in the affidavit for the search warrant for the first house that the drugs came from there.

We’ve heard stories from clients that this is going on, but, until the Daily News articles come out, it seems impossible to prove. Clients say yes, I was selling drugs.  I just wasn’t selling those drugs. At first no one believes the informer because he is, after all, a criminal, a liar and a rat.

We still see Cudjik in the halls of the courtroom when the stories first come out.  While assigned to desk duty during the investigation, he is still testifying on old cases.  Then the judges start to dismiss all his cases, the prosecution decides that Cujdik is too easy to impeach on the stand, and cases in which Cujdik played a lead role disappear.  Cudjik disappears.

The newspaper stories continue, and the circle of cops under investigation widens.  Cops are captured on videotape going into a convenience store and cutting the surveillance tape. “A lot of people were skeptical at first” about the thefts, says Barbara Laker, one of two reporters on the stories.  When people “could visually see that these officers were disabling cameras in stores, it was incredible.  They could see it and believe it.  Any kind of criticism . . . from the police department went away.”

There are also allegations of sexual assault, of officers groping female suspects.  “Just by chance,” says the other reporter, Wendy Ruderman, “the wife of the man who was arrested told us she was home alone at the time with her children, and that this one officer took her to a back room off the kitchen – and none of the other officers were with her – and he fondled her breasts [and] lifted up her shirt.  She feared she was going to be raped.  He commented on her tattoos.  Asked her to pull down her jeans a little so he could see her tattoo.  She was petrified.  Absolutely petrified.”

Officer Wolf is also named in the investigation and it is a long time before I see him again.  I think back to our discussions about “The Wire” and how he told me how realistic the T.V. show was.  Now his words take on a different meaning for me. I think of the episode during the first season in which two of the officers come across a large stash of cash under a mattress.  The two officers pause and look at each other. Then, without saying a thing, each grabs a stack of bills and stuffs it under his uniform.

When I do see Wolf again, he is back in uniform and we pass each other in the halls of the courthouse without acknowledging each other.  What is there to say?  I am sorry you are under investigation?  I hope everything works out okay?

I am not sorry.  I know it is irrational – this has nothing to do with me – but still I feel personally betrayed.  I have no idea how many times he lied in testifying against one of my clients.  But it is more than that, deeper than that.  It is because I pointed him out and introduced him to my children that pleasant afternoon at the Reading Terminal.  It is because I took such pride in my association with him.

3 Comments on “Why Do My Favorite Cops Always Turn Out To Be Crooked?

  1. Don’t feel betrayed. Celebrate the fact that you’re a magnet for the dirty ones. What a great potential client base.

  2. Did you tell your kids about the corruption and that they had met him? They probably thought you were even cooler after that.

  3. Bad cops make bad cases. As a prosecutor, I hated having a case depend upon a questionable police officer. It was rare, in my experience, to encounter a questionable police officer. Incompetent police officers were another matter; as were “rabid” (overly-enthusiastic) police officers. As a rule, I found most police departments populated by committed, admirable professionals. My recommendation to prosecutors who have the misfortune to encounter a questionable police officer in a case, do not hesitate to pull out the nolle prosequi form.

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