It was just after noon, on a hot Friday late last July, when an emergency call led Philadelphia police to a dilapidated house on the 1200 block of West Harold Street in North Philadelphia. Inside they found Harold Bennett, 53, behaving erratically and, police later said, wielding a knife and a "meat cleaver."
Civilian Intervention Team (CIT) officers, trained to deal with the mentally ill and equipped with Tasers, were called in. They tried to talk Bennett down but were unable to reason with him. He "just wasn't listening," Police Lt. Frank Vanore would later say. As the confrontation went on, Bennett "continued to become violent."
That's when the officers assembled outside the doorway, firing a Taser at him.
The shot failed to deliver the intended shock. The man "charged" the officers, prompting one to fire his gun, hitting Bennett in the chest and arm.
Critically injured, Bennett was transported to Temple University Hospital. At 4:12 p.m., he was pronounced dead from multiple gunshot wounds.
That's one version of what happened on July 30, 2010.
Certainly, it's the only version that made the evening news or the next day's papers. But witnesses, as well as Bennett's family, tell a different story — one that sounds very little like the account given by police.
Witnesses to the events of July 30 say Bennett, an Air Force veteran with metal rods in both legs and a history of mental illness, was not a serious threat to the officers confronting him. Bennett was holding a knife, they agree — but one witness said he was pointing it at himself. Police discharged the Taser at him not once but three times, they say, rendering him all but paralyzed — contrary to police accounts that the Taser had failed.
Not one witness reports seeing Bennett charge the police. If anything, witnesses say, it was the police who charged, entering the house after using the Taser on him. Within seconds, they say, came the sound of gunshots — three of them.
The police did not exit the building immediately. When they did, they emerged dragging Bennett, according to four separate eyewitness accounts, by the ankles. In chilling, identical detail, neighbors describe watching as Philadelphia police officers pulled Bennett, bloodied but still presumably alive, through the doorway and to the sidewalk, face down — his head bouncing on each concrete step to the bottom, where he was thrown onto a gurney, and taken away.
That story never made the news.
It likely wouldn't have reached the public at all, had City Paper not stumbled — almost by accident — onto Harold Street nearly a week later, while working on a story about confrontations between police and the mentally ill.
And that might be the most disturbing part. If this story almost slipped through the cracks, how many more have escaped attention entirely?
This case, and others surveyed by City Paper, raise questions: about how the police handle the mentally ill; about how fatal shootings are and aren't investigated by the police, by the District Attorney and by the media, as well; and about how much faith, in the face of glaring contradictions, the public can put in any of them.
|HE'S GONE: Harry Bennett's family (clockwise from
left: Mia Bennett, Dawn |
Johnson, Danielle Johnson, Kileyah Purdy) is devastated by the loss.
Bennett's death came at the end of a particularly bad two years for altercations between the police and the mentally ill.
In January 2009, police shot Lawrence Kelly, 40, after finding him naked, in an agitated state. Police say Kelly attacked the officers and wielded a knife.
That March, police received a report of a suicidal man and found Juan Delgado, 42, atop a roof, where his brother was consoling him. When an officer approached, police say Delgado pulled a 9mm handgun, prompting the officer to fire.
In April, an officer encountered 28-year-old Anthony Temple, described as schizophrenic by his mother, who allegedly grabbed for an officer's gun. The gun "went off," according to police, hitting Temple, who fled, only to encounter another officer. Temple lunged for that officer's weapon, as well, police said — and was shot dead.
In July 2009, two police officers fatally shot a mentally ill homeless man, later identified as Morgan Mumford, outside a SEPTA concourse when he allegedly brandished a box cutter.
This incident, more than the others before it, prompted Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey to meet with mental-health advocates and pledge to expand CIT training (he also bought 1,000 new Tasers for the department).
Just a few weeks later, though, police shot and killed Baron Adams, a 22-year-old homeless man, on his stepfather's porch. Police claimed Adams had somehow grabbed the officer's weapon and aimed it at him.
Things seemed to be getting better last year — until the death of Harry Bennett in July, followed by the fatal Tasering of mentally ill 18-year-old Patrick Johnson in October.
The frequency of such encounters has since dropped: Five seemingly mentally ill people were killed in 2009, just two in 2010. Even so, at least seven of the 26 people fatally shot by police since 2009 — more than a quarter — were likely suffering from mental illness.
And in several instances, witnesses or family members challenge the assertion that deadly force was ever necessary — or that the official police account of what happened is true.
Take the case of Lawrence Kelly, the naked 40-year-old killed by police in early 2009. While the police say Kelly attacked the officers with a knife, his wife offers a different take:
Nancy Newton and Kelly had been getting high, she concedes (she is now in recovery), when Kelly, who had bipolar disorder, began to act erratically. She called the police, hoping they'd commit her husband. Instead, she says, police entered the house and shot. Newton doesn't believe that Kelly did have a knife — "I know I didn't have any knives upstairs," she says — and says she heard no warnings from the police, nor did she hear police officers try to "calm him down," as was reported in the next day's Inquirer.
"I don't understand why they didn't Taser him," she says. "My poor baby ... I really loved Lawrence."
Or take the case of Sean Williams — shot but not killed by officers on the scene — who'd called the police himself, asking to be committed. Police arrived, but told Williams he couldn't take his clothing with him and left. According to police (as told to the Daily News ), the officers returned later to find Williams at the top of the stairs, holding a concrete block, which he "threatened to throw ... at the officers, who repeatedly ordered him to put it down." Williams was shot and then, police said, taken to an emergency room and subsequently "committed to a mental-health facility."
But Williams says he was taken directly to jail from the hospital — just got out, in fact, about a month ago, after nearly a year incarcerated. Williams was holding a brick, he says, but tossed it at his father, in the opposite direction of the police. He made no threats, he says, and the officer gave no warning to drop the brick. "With a gun pointed at me, I would definitely have dropped it!" Williams says, almost chuckling.
Kia Jackson, Williams' nearby neighbor, who visited Williams while he was locked up, agrees that the police acted hastily: "They weren't in there three seconds and they had shot him," she told CP.
Many of these situations, of course, boil down to one person's word against the word of one or (more likely) several sworn police officers. And several of the fatal shootings by police in the last few years occurred out of the sight of witnesses who might contradict — or confirm — police accounts.
But that wasn't the case with Harry Bennett.
Bennett was, family members and neighbors say, a good father, husband and an all-around family man — who struggled to be those things against a backdrop of depression and physical pain.
Born in 1957, Bennett enlisted in the military when he turned 21, serving four years in the Air Force. He went on to get a college degree and to enter into a 20-odd-year relationship with Sharon Johnson, his high school sweetheart, whom he'd met in the ninth grade, and who refers to herself as his "common-law wife." He had six children, two stepchildren and 19 grandchildren. At the time of his death he was still actively raising his youngest daughter, Mia, 16, whom he wanted to become a pediatrician.
For a time, Bennett ran his own small office cleaning business and, in 2008, opened a seafood place, Fat Daddy's on Baltimore Avenue. In a recent interview, his family showed CP a picture of Bennett shaking hands with the newly elected Mayor Michael Nutter, in front of the restaurant.
But Harry had problems, too. While in the Air Force, he was the only survivor of a terrible helicopter crash. He left the military with a metal rod in each leg, which caused him pain and restricted his movement. The accident scarred his mind, too.
"He had nightmares." says wife Sharon Johnson. "He survived and his friends didn't."
"He would dream his clothes were on fire," recalls daughter Rashida Bennett. "In the middle of the night, he would literally take his clothes off."
Bennett was subject to bouts of depression, relatives say, and was being treated for mental-health issues at the Veterans Administration. A few years ago, he decided to enter an in-patient program, and "was doing real good," says brother-in-law Mark Carter, also a vet, who would drive him to the Coatesville VA Medical Center for treatment.
Indeed, Bennett had recently brought home evidence of his progress in the form of certificates from the hospital. One, marked "Patriots Award," reads, "Given to a U.S. Soldier for a good fight." Another reads, "In appreciation with gratitude for services rendered as Vice-President of the 58B community" — 5B being a mental-health ward.
By last July, Bennett was preparing to move his family out of North Philly to Norristown — partly to keep his youngest daughter (and, perhaps, himself) away from the dangerous influences of the neighborhood. He talked of establishing a veterans assistance center. The events of July 30 cut those dreams short.
How and why Bennett wound up around the corner from his family home and inside the run-down house in which he died is a mystery. Several neighbors speculate that drugs were involved — a scenario his family neither confirms nor denies. "Anything was possible," says niece Dawn Johnson.
Whatever triggered the episode that brought police to the 1200 block of Harold Street, though, Bennett's family, friends and neighbors insist he posed no threat to anyone but himself.
But they also dispute basic information given by police as to how the incident played out — information that apparently went unquestioned by the news outlets that covered the story at the time. No one CP spoke to, including Bennett's wife and daughter, who live a few houses down, was interviewed by police or reporters.
Had they been, a different story might have emerged. Take, for example, the Taser.
Several witnesses confirm the first part of the police account: Initially, a team of CIT-trained officers had been trying to negotiate with Bennett, telling him to drop the knife. When he didn't, they fired a Taser.
Key to the police account of how and why Bennett came to be shot is the repeated claim by police that the Taser used to subdue him didn't work.
The Taser had "no effect," reported the Inquirer, and "failed to stop [Bennett] from charging officers," reported the Associated Press; it "only made him more violent," reported NBC. "The shock failed," said the Daily News in its article, "and the man charged again."
But witnesses disagree.
At least three observed not one but several Taser discharges — "You could hear them: zzt, zzt, zzt," says neighbor Barbara Everett. Another witness a few houses down, who declined to be identified, says, "They were doing it a lot," adding, "He got paralyzed."
Alvin Wessels, who lives with Everett, also says he thought Bennett, while standing, seemed definitely stunned by the Taser. "It was at least three times," Wessels describes. "He was standing as if he was paralyzed. He couldn't move."
Bennett, according to the police account, had "charged" the officers after being Tasered — yet none of the witnesses with whom CP spoke saw Bennett charge anyone — or even move past the front the door of the house.
It was two undercover police officers who arrived on the scene, they say, who rushed at him, after he'd been Tasered, into the house — and out of view from the street. That's when the shots rang out: three of them, according to three witnesses. And here is where the witnesses' story takes its most startling divergence from police accounts.
The officers didn't come out immediately, they say: Five, 10 minutes, perhaps more passed while the police remained inside the house following the gunshots — time, Bennett's family points out, that he could have been bleeding to death. When the police did emerge, four witnesses told CP independently, they were bringing Bennett out — by the ankles.
"They dragged him out by his ankles," says Monique Johnson, who lives across the street from the house. "His face hit every step on the way down. "
"They dragged the man out by his feet," affirms Everett, who saw the incident from a few doors down, "letting his face hit the sidewalk and everything. If they hadn't killed him with those shots, they probably killed him by dragging him down those steps."
"I saw the police dragging him down the steps," says Wessels, who was also standing outside, "like he was a piece of meat."
A fourth witness declined to give a name, but also confirmed seeing Bennett dragged by his ankles down the steps. "I could see his face," this witness says. "He was still alive."
It was only then, witnesses say, that Bennett was put into a rescue vehicle and transported to the hospital. He was pronounced dead hours later.
The statements made to CP by these witnesses raise serious questions about what happened that day.
Was Bennett actually threatening anyone with the knife? Did he need to be Tasered in the first place? Did the shock — or shocks — actually fail to subdue him? Did police pursue the Tasered man inside the house, and why? Was Bennett really charging officers when he was shot? Why, if Bennett was critically wounded, did officers remain inside with him, as witnesses claim?
And was Bennett really dragged from the house in the manner described — even though he was critically wounded and, as witness claim, emergency medics were on hand?
And, if these witness accounts are accurate, how is the public to trust what the police say?
None of these witnesses' claims appear in news accounts of the incident — presumably because no one talked to them.
True, there's no shortage of crime in Philly. But the instances of fatal police shootings are not insurmountable for reporters, even in these days of thinning newsrooms: 12 in 2008, 14 in 2009, 11 in 2010. Witnesses have been interviewed in many fatal shootings, of course, but Bennett's isn't the only such case that appears to have gone uninvestigated by the media.
Which raises another question: If reporters aren't checking up on these cases, who is? Don't hold your breath for an answer.
It's been seven months since Bennett was killed, and his family has heard nothing from the police, its Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) or the District Attorney's office, which investigates all fatal police shootings.
Indeed, the IAB investigation automatically opened into the case remains open. What, exactly, this investigation consists of isn't clear: Only one of the five witnesses to the incident with whom CP spoke reports having been contacted by police or the DA's office following the incident.
Monique Johnson acknowledges being contacted by police via telephone, but declined to talk about it on the phone. Soon after, she says an officer showed up at her house, asking her to sign paperwork — she believes it was some kind of waiver confirming that she didn't want to give a statement. Johnson declined to sign and hasn't heard back since.
As for the other witnesses, none say they've been contacted — though several say they would have been happy to tell investigators their story. "I was really hoping for the police to ask questions," says Alvin Wessels, "but they didn't."
If IAB officers "canvassed" the block, or the neighborhood — a practice routinely described in other IAB reports reviewed by CP — they seem to have somehow missed a block full of witnesses.
City Paper was recently able to obtain the name of the officer who fatally shot Bennett: According to police, that was officer Phillip Sprague, of the 22nd District. A review of Sprague's IAB file reveals five previous complaints over the years. But Sprague's file is devoid of any information relating to the case of Harry Bennett. In order to investigate their claims, says Lt. Kevin Long of IAB, the family would have to file a formal complaint against him — a difficult feat, since the family says IAB officers refused to give them the name of the officer involved until their investigation was complete — a catch-22.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia police officers accused or suspected of misconduct cannot be interviewed by police until first cleared by the District Attorney of any criminal charges — and the District Attorney, in turn, waits for a report from IAB before concluding its own investigation.
Even once they commence, the investigations by the DA's office are infamous for their duration, dragging on for years, in some cases, before the DA decides whether to press charges.
During his recent campaign, newly elected District Attorney Seth Williams vowed to speed up that process, telling the Daily News just this past October that his office "needed to handle these cases more efficiently ... [and] be more transparent ... and that's what we're doing." But Williams' definition of "transparent" is proving anything but.
A few months ago, City Paper filed a Right to Know request, asking, among other things, to know which investigations into fatal shootings have been closed so far, and which still remain open. The DA's office denied the request.
An official from the DA's office did contact City Paper informally, promising to look into the matter. But after several days, he called back: The DA would stand by its official position, he said.
The DA's office, says spokesperson Tasha Jamerson, "does not comment on ongoing investigations," adding that "the District Attorney has been very transparent in letting the public know when a case ... is cleared."
After a final call asking for the status of Bennett's seven-month-long case, Jamerson acknowledged that it was still open.
Police, meanwhile, did not respond to two pages of questions regarding the incident. Spokesperson Lt. Ray Evers says only that if the DA's case is open, so is theirs. "We'll finish our investigation after the DA's," he explains.
And so Harry Bennett's family, like many other families in Philadelphia (how many, exactly, only the DA and police seem to know), is left waiting, without answers and without closure.
"It's like human life has no value," says niece Dawn Johnson angrily. "There needs to be a thorough investigation. ... They left a little girl without her father."
"Somebody, somewhere along the line, is going to have to answer some big questions," says Bennett's daughter, Rashida. "They took something very special away from us."
"To serve your country, come home and be killed by a police officer," says friend and brother-in-law Mark Carter, shaking his head — and trailing off.
Meanwhile, the only party to the entire affair who seems to have found resolution is Phillip Sprague, the officer who pulled the trigger. After the incident, police told the Inquirer and Daily News that the (then-unnamed) officer would be "placed on desk duty pending the results of an investigation" — standard procedure in fatal police shootings.
But even though police say they are still investigating, it is clear that Sprague has since returned to the street. Just a few months ago, in fact, he made headlines again, this time by name. On Nov. 27, North Philadelphia resident Naimah Jones emerged from her house to find a man "poking around" her car, with her sleeping kids inside. The woman screamed at the man — Sprague, in plain clothes, she would later discover — to "get the f--- away."
Sprague and another officer, Jones claims, pushed her to the ground, stepped on her head and Tasered her four times. Jones has filed a complaint with Internal Affairs. It may be a long wait.