39th District corruption scandal

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The 39th District corruption scandal refers to a persistent pattern of brutality and corruption among a cadre of Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) officers, primarily from the department's 39th District, that emerged in late 1995 and received nationwide attention by 1997, eventually resulting in an investigation by Human Rights Watch.

Dramatis personae[edit]

Many hundreds of people were involved in the epidemic of abuses that gripped North Philadelphia in the early 1990s; some are notable due to their direct participation, others for their participation in other notable events, particularly the extended legal proceedings related to the conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal in the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner.

Convicted PPD Officers[edit]

Members of the PPD's Special Narcotics Unit, also known as The Five Squad:

  • Officer John Baird
  • Lt Frank Dubundo
  • Sergeant Thomas DeGovanni
  • Officer Steven Brown
  • Officer James Ryan
  • Officer Thomas Ryan (on leave from the PPD at the time of conviction).
  • Officer Louis J. Maier, was convicted on separate charges of robbery and battery.

Other key figures[edit]

  • Lynne Abraham, District Attorney
  • Pamela Jenkins, longtime paid PPD informant and key government witness.
  • James Dambach, Philadelphia Police detective credited with breaking loose the stalled federal investigation.
  • James Williamson, FBI agent who headed the investigation of the 39th District 5 Squad.

Brief description[edit]

The core of the scandal involves actions by a cabal of PPD officers, some of whom were known to North Philadelphia as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, charged with investigating suspected crack houses and drug distribution hubs. The officers conducted "raids", often unreported, on some of these locations. The officers were also known for stealing from suspects and generally (in the words of one of the prosecuting judges) "squash[ing] the Bill of Rights into the mud."[1].

Three of the involved officers were dismissed from the department in 1991 for searching a known drug dealer's suburban apartment without a warrant based on information provided by Pamela Jenkins, a prostitute and drug user who was the longtime girlfriend and informant of Officer Thomas Ryan. One of the dismissed officers, Sergeant Thomas Degovanni, was reinstated a year later, while another officer, John Baird, was in arbitration for reinstatement. The third dismissed officer, Thomas Ryan, was awarded a full disability pension by the city board of pensions.

The investigation of the illegal search was ultimately turned over to the F.B.I. by the PPD Internal Affairs Bureau at the direction of Police Commissioner Willie Williams, in the wake of the Rodney King beating at the hands of the LAPD. Many high-ranking command officers saw this as a political move on the part of Commissioner Williams, who then actively campaigned for the position of Chief of the LAPD.

The FBI carried the investigation as a low priority, assigning it to a rookie agent, James Williamson, as the first criminal investigation he headed. Williamson's investigation was stalled with no reliable witnesses or evidence to indict the 39th District, 5 Squad officers until Philadelphia Police Detective, James Dambach, was detailed to the FBI to assist Agent Williamson. Detective Dambach showed Williamson how it is really done on the street and by the summer of 1994 they had acquired enough circumstantial evidence, of civil rights violations, to approach former Officer Thomas Ryan.

Former officer Thomas Ryan agreed to cooperate and turned over his informant and lover, Pamela Jenkins, to Detective Dambach and Agent Williamson. Ryan and Jenkins both agreed to wear body wires and to record their conversations with former officer Baird. In December, 1994 Detective Dambach and Agent Williamson confronted Baird with the recordings made by Ryan and Jenkins. Baird, facing a long prison sentenced if convicted, agreed to cooperate but was eventually charged and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice (and civil rights violations) for lying to a federal agent (Williamson) in a failed attempt to steer the investigation away from specific police officers who the Feds had targeted for indictment.

The Federal investigation of the Philadelphia Police 39th District, 5 Squad, eventually expanded into the elite Highway Patrol Unit when Officer James Ryan (not related to Thomas Ryan) agreed to cooperate against officers in that unit who engaged in the same activity as the officers in the 39th District.

In the wake of the scandal, nearly 1,400 cases were put under review; by 1997, between 160 and 300 had been overturned, leading to the release of more than 100 persons. Beyond the convictions obtained by federal prosecutors, no one in the PPD was explicitly punished, other than being transferred to other units within the department. With the exception of Philadelphia Police Detective James Dambach, who upon returning to regular police duties found himself to be a pariah within the ranks. Labeled a "Gink" (Philadelphia police term for rat), Dambach endured the label and eventually attained the rank of lieutenant.


"When the police are indistinguishable from the bad guys, then society has a serious problem."

– District Attorney Lynne Abraham

"The history of these kinds of scandals is that cops go right back to acting as they always have when the dust settles, because the pressure they most feel is the pressure to produce results, the constant demand to get the job done."

– FBI official associated with the case [2]

"We didn't own and operate the system. We didn't invent it. We were just some of the many thousands of custodians. We inherited it."

– Officer John Baird, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer[1]