​Two cops charged in Philly with assault and conspiracy after beating man and lying about it

Reuters/Kyle Carter
A federal grand jury has indicted two officers with the Philadelphia Police Department on seven counts each related to a 2013 incident in which the cops severely beat a man and then filed false charges against him.

District Attorney Seth Williams announced that the two officers, Kevin Robinson and Sean McKnight, have formally been charged with aggravated assault and criminal conspiracy, among other crimes, at a news conference on Thursday this week . The pair were indicted after a grand jury examined evidence related to the altercation that occurred nearly two years ago between the cops and victim Najee Rivera on the north side of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Both officers were suspended immediately upon announcement of the grand jury’s findings, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told the Associated Press, and will likely be terminated from the force.

Initially, the two officers claimed that Rivera had eluded a traffic stop and fled from authorities on the night of May 29, 2013 in their official filings. In their report, they wrote that when the cops caught up with him moments later, Rivera slammed Robinson into the brick wall of a building and then repeatedly elbowed the officer in the face, prompting McKnight to respond with force. Rivera sustained injuries during the ordeal that were significant enough for him to be sent to a local hospital with a fractured orbital bone and numerous lacerations to the head where he received stitches and staples, and immediately after he was transferred to a nearby police station and charged with aggravated assault and resisting arrest in accordance with the two cops’ account of the events.

Rivera’s girlfriend later acquired surveillance camera footage from the crime scene that tells a much different story – so much so, in fact, that the District Attorney’s Office withdrew the charges filed by Robinson and McKnight after the clip was reviewed and then forwarded the video to the grand jury that made this week’s decision.

Contrary to claims made by Robinson and McKnight, Williams said on Thursday, the grand jury believes both officers actually acted as the aggressors and had knocked Rivera off his scooter, then beat him so severely that a third cop who arrived on the scene shortly after said the victim appeared to have been shot.

“The video undermined every aspect of the officers’ account,” Williams said at Thursday’s press conference, according to Reuters. “None of it was true except for the blows inflicted on Najee Rivera.”

Indeed, a copy of the grand jury presentment first obtained by Philadelphia Magazine suggests that the individuals tasked with weighing potential charges against the two officers saw nothing of the sort described by law enforcement officials in 2013.

“Based upon the evidence presented before this Grand Jury, including but not limited to the testimony of Najee Rivera and Detective James Brooks as well as the video, we conclude that McKnight and Robinson knocked Rivera from his scooter and then repeatedly struck Rivera with a baton and fists causing bodily injury,” they wrote.

“Although he was moving around on the ground while being struck, he was not resisting the officers or engaging in any aggressive act,” the grand jury said of Rivera. “At no time during the incident did Rivera attempt to assault either officer.”

Explaining the jury’s findings this week, Williams offered a grim narrative of what he saw while watching the surveillance footage.

“In reality, Rivera didn’t just fall off his scooter as officers approached in their patrol car,” he said at the news conference, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Instead, one of them actually reached out of the window and clubbed Rivera in the head; the car bumped the scooter and Rivera fell to the ground.”

“Both officers then got out and immediately placed Rivera in their control. He never resisted, he never struck them, he never fought back, they just started hitting him,” Williams continued. “First, one held him against the wall, while the other beat him with a baton. Then they held him on the ground and beat him some more, with both fist and baton.”

“Even if he had been the devil himself, they could not have done what they did to him,” The Inquirer quoted Williams as having said.

Both cops have been charged in relation to the attack with one count each of criminal conspiracy, aggravated assault, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person. Additionally, the grand jury said it “reviewed all of the police paperwork submitted by McKnight and Robinson and concludes that the information in that paperwork was falsified,” thusly charging both with one count each of tampering with public records, filing false reports, obstruction administration of law and official oppression.

“It is painful, it is embarrassing,” Ramsey, the commissioner, told Reuters this week with regards to considering this case alongside other recent incidents that have raised questions about the Philly Police Department. “It does bring up a lot of issues you see across the country,” he said.

Thursday’s news came the same day that a judge in New York entertained oral arguments from attorneys who want the public to see the evidence that a separate grand jury reviewed last year before deciding not to charge a police officer there with the August 2014 death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. The death of Garner and a similar incident a month earlier in which Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, have raised concerns about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers across the United States. Unlike those instances, though, the Philadelphia grand jury has decided that enough evidence exists to bring charges against McKnight, 30, and Robinson, 26.

Both officers have been on the receiving end of seven citizen complaints apiece since joining the force less than a decade ago, Kenneth Lipp wrote for the Philadelphia Declaration, and Rivera has reportedly also settled a civil suit with the city over the matter for $200,000.