Special to Drug War Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, firstname.lastname@example.org. Part 9 of his continuing series on Prosecutorial Misconduct and Police Corruption in Drug Cases Across America.
August 2, 2008 was a typical summer day in Camden, New Jersey, a gritty, impoverished, mostly black community across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. A bright sun beamed down on the sweltering city as Joel Barnes, 26, prepared to attend a family barbecue at his grandmother's house -- a regular event for the Barnes family, where they relaxed and reminisced about days gone by. He had hurried over to a friend's house to get his help situating the barbecue pit and sprucing up Barnes's grandmother's back yard before the festivities.
But as he arrived at his friend's house, Barnes encountered heavily-armed Camden police officers rushing into the house with guns drawn shouting "Police! Police! Police!" and demanding "Where's the drugs?" Barnes and the other occupants of the house were herded into the kitchen, where Officer Robert Bayard handcuffed him. Bayard pulled a cell phone, cash and keys from Barnes's pocket. They found no drugs or contraband on him, so he figured he would be released once everything was settled.
It didn't work out that way.
[Editor's Note: All quotes from Camden residents come from The Philadelphia Inquirer unless otherwise specified.]
Another Camden cop, Officer Antonio Figueroa, led Barnes out of the house and threw him into a van, then left. When Figueroa returned to the van, he again demanded of Barnes "Where's the shit at?"
"I don't know if there's drugs in that house. I don't live here," an increasingly scared and nervous Barnes replied, explaining that he was only there to ask his friend for help with the barbecue pit. Barnes said in a nervous tone voice.
Figueroa then showed Barnes a bag containing PCP-laced marijuana and made him an ominous offer: "Tell us where the shit's at, and we'll make this disappear," Figueroa said, echoing the famous line in Training Day when the crooked cop played by Denzel Washington asks a suspect in a similar situation, "Do you want to go home… or go to jail?"
With Barnes continuing his denials, Officer Figueroa grew angry, telling him "The drugs in the bag carried more serious charges than any drugs that might be found in the house." Figueroa then told Barnes he could get a lesser prison sentence if just told police where in his friend's house the drugs were.
"I don't know nothing about drugs in the house," Barnes responded, pleading to be let go.
Officers Figueroa and Bayard continued to tag-team the young man, with Bayard repeatedly demanding "Where's the shit?" and Figueroa waving the mysteriously appearing bag of dope and telling Barnes "This is yours!"
"That bag's not mine," a desperate Barnes repeatedly protested.
Then, Officer Figueroa again returned to the van, yelling, "We found the shit! You're going to jail!"
Figueroa charged Barnes with possession of drugs with intent to deliver, and added on a drug-free zone enhancement charge. Despite bitterly protesting his innocence, Barnes was looking at up to life in prison if he went to trial. Figuring that a jury was more likely to believe a veteran police officer than a young black man from Camden, he agreed to a plea bargain.
On February 23, 2009, he copped to one count of drug possession within a school zone. Two months later, he began serving a five-year prison sentence.
"I felt helpless and didn't know what to do," Barnes said, recalling the experience. "I knew I hadn't done anything wrong, but all I knew was that the officers had the power and I had none."
"Joel told his lawyer he was innocent, and he didn't believe him; he told his mother he was innocent, and she didn't believe him. That must have been devastating, but the scope of the police misconduct was so dramatic that it was hard for an outsider to believe that police would do anything so outrageous," Alexander Shalom, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union told the Chronicle.
But Barnes was innocent. And he was not the only one to fall victim to what would eventually be exposed as a massive police corruption scandal in Camden.
While Barnes -- and nearly 200 other innocent victims -- went off to prison thanks to the efforts of Bayard, Figueroa and their team, known as the Platoon Squad, other people victimized by the crooked cops were filing complaints. After repeated, persistent complaints of police dirty dealing, including ones from the Camden Public Defender's Office, Camden Police Internal Affairs and the FBI opened an investigation.
That investigation revealed a wide-ranging police corruption scheme that would have made the crooked cops in Training Day blush. In that film, Denzel Washington was a low-down dirty cop who framed the innocent and stole drug money. In Camden, he would have been just one of the boys.
The investigation resulted in the indictment of five members of the Platoon Squad on a variety of civil rights violation charges involving perjury and drug-planting conspiracies, as well as stealing money from suspects during illegal searches and making false arrests. The FBI even uncovered information that the brazen officers used illegal drugs and money stolen from suspected drug dealers and never reported to pay street snitches and prostitutes for information.
Platoon Squad Sergeant Supervisor Dan Morris pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deprive defendants of their civil rights and got eight months in federal prison; Officer Kevin Perry copped to the same charge and got 20 months, while Officer Jason "Fat Face" Stetser got 46 months on the same charge.
Only officers Bayard and Figueroa went to trial. To the shock of prosecutors and defendants alike, Bayard managed to beat the rap despite fellow officers testifying that he knowingly participated in the drug planting scheme. But Figueroa was found guilty and sent to prison for 10 years, the toughest sentence for any of the Platoon Squad.
Criminal convictions for the Platoon Squad were just part one of the fallout. Part two came as the ACLU filed a federal class action civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the wrongfully convicted Camden residents.
"If any action by a police officer shocks the conscience, it is the planting of evidence on an innocent person in order to arrest him," the ACLU noted. "The police officers' actions violated the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits civil rights violations, and through their own actions or the lack of policies and supervision the Camden police officers conspired to plant drugs and falsely arrested the defendants for planted drugs and further provided the prosecutors with faulty evidence."
In January 2013, just as the criminal cases against the Platoon Squad were winding down, the city of Camden settled. The city agreed to pay out $3.5 million to be split between the 88 drug defendants who had joined the class action lawsuit. Joel Barnes was one of them. The innocent men served a combined total of 109 years in prison prior to being released.
The city of Camden also eventually settled a separate state civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 11 people who were framed by the same rogue cops, but whose cases were dropped. That was another $390,000 in taxpayer money gone. In that case, Camden had to sue its own insurer, which had refused to pay the historic settlement.
ACLU attorney Shalom told the Chronicle the drug planting scheme was the worst and most brazen he had seen in many years.
"We often hear about it, but we were shocked it was so provable in this case," he said.
Shalom noted that even though many of the innocent defendants had had private counsel, they still pleaded guilty to false charges.
"A lot of things account for those decisions, not the least of which is that drug sentencing laws are so harsh that if they hadn't pleaded guilty they were facing insanely long sentences," he explained.
Rogue Cops in the Hood
The Platoon Squad considered Camden's Waterfront neighborhood, where most of the illegal arrests went down, as their fiefdom, where the only rules that mattered were their rules. "Drug dealers live here, but we run it," they reportedly told residents.
"Fat Face" Stetser admitted to the FBI in 2008 that he and three other officers arrested two people on suspicion of drug trafficking and planted drugs on them. This in a warrantless search of a residence where Stetser and his buddies falsely claimed the "suspect" they targeted had fled the scene and discarded the drugs as he tried to escape. That didn't happen. Stetser also admitted planting additional drugs on people found with small amounts of dope so they could be charged with more serious crimes.
Similarly, Sergeant Morris confessed to conducting a warrantless search where he stole cash and drugs, splitting the cash with Stetser.
Likewise, although Officer Bayard was found not guilty at trial, evidence showed that he wrote a report accusing Ron Mills, 46, of throwing a bag of drugs on the ground and eluding police after a foot chase. Bayard's report proved false because Mills weighed over 300 pounds and always walked slowly with a cane.
Another victim of false arrest was Anthony Darrell Clark, who was arrested on drug charges. Described as "slow" and emotionally disturbed, Clark was eventually released back to the care of his mother after the scandal broke.
"I always thought he was framed," Vera Clark told The Inquirer.
Benjamin Davis was another. He served his full 30 months before coming home. He said he pleaded guilty rather than fighting for justice because he didn't think he would be believed.
"With my priors I had no chance of beating it," he said.
Beaten down Waterfront residents had known for years they were being hassled by dirty cops, but never believed they could do anything about it. Seeing the Platoon Squad get what was coming to it was sweet.
"These were the dirtiest cops I've ever seen," said area resident Kevin Smith.
And Joel Barnes? He was languishing in prison when his mother read in the newspaper about the indictments against the Platoon Squad. He retrieved his court file and confirmed that the cops who had jacked him up were among the indicted. He sought succor from the court and from the Public Defender's office, but got nowhere. It was only when the ACLU stepped up with its lawsuit, that Barnes saw belated justice. He walked out of prison on June 8, 2010, after spending more than a year behind bars on false charges.
Meanwhile, of the Platoon Squad, only Figueroa remains in prison, and he has appealed his conviction. The others have gone on to start new lives, hopefully in positions where they will not be empowered to subvert the law and destroy the lives of others.
Police corruption not only shatters the lives of the falsely accused and convicted, it destroys respect for the law and the people who enforce it. In the case of Camden, the war on drugs provided both the pretext and the opportunity for bad cops to tarnish not only the reputation of their police force and their city, but also to cruelly wreck the lives of innocents.