Philly Bodega Raids Update: Rogue Narcotics Unit Lacked Oversight


Previously (here and here), I blogged about a rogue narcotics unit in Philadelphia that was raiding bodegas on the flimsy excuse that the stores were selling resealable zip-lock bags that could potentially be used by drug dealers. Bodega owners say the cops were cutting the lines to surveillance cameras, then stealing cash, alcohol, cigarettes, and snack food from the stores. The Philadelphia Daily News was able to obtain footage of the cops cutting off one of the cameras during a raid, then inquiring to the store owner about whether the camera feeds went to a computer that was on or off-site.

The lingering question, here, is how this unit was able to operate like this for so long without any oversight. Why wasn't anyone questioning the use of such aggressive tactics in searches not for drugs, but for no more than an otherwise legal product? Why did no one in the department ask why an "elite" narcotics unit was wasting its time busting immigrant shop owners with no criminal record for selling plastic bags instead of pursuing actual drug distributors?

It's one thing to have a few rogue cops that, once caught, are fired and—hopefully—criminally charged. It's a more wide-ranging and serious problem if there are institutional failures in the Philadelphia police department that allowed Officer Jeffrey Cujdic's scam of terrorizing immigrant shop owners to flourish.

Now, the Daily News has published the results of its review of the search warrants obtained by Cujdik's unit over the last several years, and the results are troubling. They find a wholesale lack of supervision of Cujdik and his men, even as complaints against them mounted.

Narcotics enforcement is ripe for corruption because officers handle large amounts of cash and drugs, legal experts say.

So the Police Department has procedural safeguards: A supervisor must review and approve all applications for warrants, officers must never meet an informant without another officer present, and at least two officers should conduct drug surveillances.

Yet supervisors and officers often disregarded those rules, a Daily News review of hundreds of search warrants found.

In several cases, officers worked alone with informants and were the only ones to watch drug buys. Yet supervisors approved those search-warrant applications…

Cpl. Mark Palma, a narcotics-squad supervisor, was apparently not bothered when Officer Richard Cujdik, Jeffrey's brother, worked alone on a three-day surveillance job in September 2007.

Palma approved a search-warrant application for Jose Duran's West Oak Lane grocery store, based on Richard Cujdik's assertion that he watched a confidential informant—CI #142—enter the store to buy ziplock bags three times.

The validity of that search warrant is now in question.

For the last buy, Richard Cujdik wrote that he "observed" CI #142 enter Duran's store at about 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2007. Yet the Daily News watched the time-stamped Sept. 11 surveillance footage of the store between 4 and 5 p.m., and no one asked for or bought a ziplock bag.

Sgt. Joseph Bologna supervised the ensuing raid, part of which was captured on video. The Daily News obtained the video and posted it on its Web site, philly.com.

The video shows Bologna directing officers to "disconnect" camera wires. They do so with pliers and a bread knife. Bologna makes no effort to stop Richard Cujdik when the officer searches Duran's van, allegedly without a warrant.

Duran alleges that officers seized nearly $10,000 in the raid but documented taking only $785.

While Cujdik has been demoted to desk duty pending the results of internal and federal investigations, Bologna has since been promoted to lieutenant.

The Daily News reports that all of this has happened less than five years after an agreement between the city and civil rights groups expired, stemming from a scandal in the 1990s in which narcotics cops went to jail for lying on search warrants, shaking down drug dealers, and making dozens of wrongful arrests. That agreement required more vigilant oversight of the city's narcotics units by police supervisors to guard against mistaken raids, corruption, and false statements on search warrant affidavits. Not only does it appear the brass in Philly didn't learn from that scandal, the Daily News writes that it's unclear if Philly PD officials ever actually carried out the requirements put forth in the agreement.

Hats off to Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker for pursuing and sticking with this story, despite attacks on their character and credibility by Cujdik's supporters in the Philly police union.