By Radley Balko
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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.