Criminal Justice

Philly Bodega Raids Update: Rogue Narcotics Unit Lacked Oversight

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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.

NEXT: The Curious Case of Banning Blubber

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  1. Hey, it’s Philly, a Democrat one-party city where the black majority can be counted on. When reformers such as Sam Katz run, they are attacked as racists and most voters aren’t outraged by the false attacks.

  2. “It’s a shame we have to stand here today to defend a highly decorated police officer in the Narcotics Field Unit, an officer who confiscates a ton of drugs, a ton of guns and is out there doing what a lot of other citizens in the city of Philadelphia do not want to do,” FOP President John J. McNesby said.

    doing what a lot of other citizens in the city of Philadelphia do not want to do

    You got that part right, you slimy fuck.

    Because it shouldn’t be done.

  3. I think the shame, Mr. FOP President, is that an officer who has engaged for years in criminal activities is highly decorated.

  4. I say again:
    Stories like this are what prevent me from being unreservedly opposed to capital punishment. This sort of abuse of power and authority should get these bastards a ride on Old Sparky.

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

    They do the same thing with weight, that’s the safer move because it can be converted into money, especially if you are the “law” and no dealer is going to stand up in court and say, “no your honor that was two pounds, not one.”

  6. The FOP union rep also said, “Wait a minute, you mean to tell me that Training Day wasn’t an instructional video on positive law enforcement tactics? Then why’d they give Denzel the Oscar?”

  7. I’ve said it millions of times: what oversight is there of the judges signing these warrants. Is there any penalty at any level above the street police for credulity, lack of oversight, and general idiocy???
    Will there be any attempt to look at this systematically? Will anyone be Convicted? Prosecuted? Demoted? No secret Santa for them??
    Well of course not.

  8. P Brooks | May 1, 2009, 12:15pm | #

    I say again:
    Stories like this are what prevent me from being unreservedly opposed to capital punishment. This sort of abuse of power and authority should get these bastards a ride on Old Sparky.

    It should, but they’ll just fake evidence to get some innocent schmuck executed, which is one reason the death penalty should be eliminated.

  9. Rewards for breaking the rules on warrants, seizures, civil rights: Ample.

    Punishments for same: Zero to minimal.

    Apply RC’z First Iron Law:

    1. You get more of what you reward, and less of what you punish.

    You do the math.

  10. Stories like this are what prevent me from being unreservedly opposed to capital punishment. This sort of abuse of power and authority should get these bastards a ride on Old Sparky.
    Actually, stories like these give me pause about the death penalty- which I’d otherwise wholeheartedly support. How can I trust the “thin blue line”, with someone’s life????

  11. Vic, Shane, Ronnie, those were their names, right?

  12. Ironically, a number of Philly cops have been killed on the job in the last 18 months. Each time, the newsjackals fell all over themselves trying to outdo each other with pro-cop propaganda. I’m guessing the victims of cop crime aren’t going to get a solemn parade in their honor, nor fundraisers for their families. They’re lucky anyone found out at all.

  13. My position on the death penalty is that it should be used *exclusively* on “public servants” who commit crimes.

    If the people who killed Kathryn Johnston are not on death row, nobody should be on death row.

  14. Let’s end the drug war and put these goddamned crooks out of business.

    -jcr

  15. What JCR said.

  16. The war on drugs corrupts US cops just as it corrupts Mexican ones?

    Who’d a thunk it?

  17. I’d a thunked it a long time ago.

  18. Keep Dope Alive !!!

    Stop the Drug War
    Stop Pursuing people for every little thing
    You can’t even go out with your wife and have two glasses of wine and a sambuca with your coffee after a large italian dinner…because u’d b considered a drunk driver.

  19. Wonder what Scalia thinks of these “professionals”.

  20. I blame Frankie Rizzo.

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