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Before killing a 12-year-old, a South Philly plainclothes police unit caused frequent chaos, residents say

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Tysha Melton visits a memorial to her dead son, Travys Taylor, in his old room in her home. In March, she said, a dozen law enforcement officers raided her home, looking to arrest Taylor on a bench warrant for criminal trespass.
Tysha Melton visits a memorial to her dead son, Travys Taylor, in his old room in her home. In March, she said, a dozen law enforcement officers raided her home, looking to arrest Taylor on a bench warrant for criminal trespass. He had been killed five months earlier. Photo Gallery

PHILADELPHIA — Jakir Waters was driving to his mother’s house to baby-sit his 3-year-old brother one morning in early October 2020. First, though, the 19-year-old stopped on a side street in South Philadelphia to see a friend.

Waters, 21, said he was double parked and chatting out the window, when he noticed a car behind him, dark tinted windows concealing who was inside. Unsettled, Waters pulled off. The black sedan followed, staying with him as he serpentined through narrow streets.

“I didn’t know who it was. … I thought it was someone out to kill me,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on; people are dying every day.”

Waters looped around about eight blocks, then headed west on Moore Street. As he approached 22nd Street, he said, “I looked up to see where they were in my rearview mirror. And, when I looked, I ran a red light and someone hit me.”

After the crash, three men emerged from the black sedan, demanding to know where the guns and drugs were stashed. It was only then, said Waters — who had never been convicted of a crime but was out on bail on two gun cases — that he finally understood that they were police.

Police did not find any drugs or guns.

Waters was charged with aggravated assault by vehicle.

The driver he collided with suffered four broken ribs and a back injury that would require two days in the hospital and eight months of pain management.

As for the plainclothes cops who tailed Waters — seemingly in violation of a departmental directive to avoid most car chases — they continued as officers assigned to the South Task Force, a roving tactical unit that uses social media and on-the-ground surveillance to seize illegal guns and arrest suspected felons across South Philadelphia.

Its mission is central to a prime goal of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw: getting illegal guns off the street to combat an unprecedented surge in shootings and homicides.

But it began to attract scrutiny in March, when a task force officer, Edsaul Mendoza, fatally shot a 12-year-old boy, Thomas “TJ” Siderio, in the back. Some in the community, and even within law enforcement, now say there were warning signs long before that. Task force members, they say — wearing jeans and hoodies and driving unmarked cars — had gained a reputation as “cowboys” or “jump-out boys,” creating unsafe or chaotic situations in pursuit of arrests.

Five people arrested by plainclothes task force officers in the last two years told The Philadelphia Inquirer they initially believed they were being carjacked, robbed or stalked by some unknown assailant. Others alleged the officers crossed over into misconduct including warrantless searches, physical abuse and planted guns.

The dangerous situations the task force has encountered include a broad daylight shootout in 2020 on a South Philadelphia street, a foot chase during which a suspect said his gun discharged through his pocket, and a stop during which a suspect allegedly pointed a gun at the officers’ unmarked car.

Then, on March 1, four Task Force members drove to Barry Playground in South Philadelphia, looking for a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old who’d been seen on social media with guns. When officers arrived, police say, a bullet pierced the windshield of their unmarked black Chevrolet Cruze. Two officers got out to chase the suspected shooter, TJ, and Mendoza fired four shots, killing him. The Inquirer has previously reported that video and audio show that TJ had dropped his gun by the time he was shot in the back.

Mendoza was fired a week later. “It was clear the use-of-force policy was violated,” Outlaw said, though she declined to say how. The other officers present when TJ was shot, Alex Camacho, Robert Cucinelli and Kwaku Sarpong, were placed on desk duty while an investigation of the shooting continues.

Contacted by phone, Sarpong hung up on a reporter. Attempts to reach other task force members by phone and email were not successful. The officers’ union declined to comment.

A department spokesperson said commenting on the shooting, the officers involved, the South Task Force, or even its policies on plainclothes officers, could “compromise the integrity” of ongoing criminal and administrative investigations.

Some residents say such investigations are overdue.

“Anyone you meet from South Philly, you can ask about that black Chevy Cruze. Everyone will say ‘Yeah, I know them. They’re crazy,’” said Damarcus Tucker, who said at first he thought he was being carjacked when Mendoza and other task force officers arrested him in February. “They’re aggressive.”

‘Somebody’s got to … enforce gun laws’

By the time TJ was shot, the South Task Force already had a reputation in law enforcement circles as a brash and freewheeling group whose members displayed an intense devotion to their jobs and were often found in chaotic situations.

The unit appears to have formed around 2019, bringing some of the most active officers from across South Philadelphia’s three police districts into one team.

Since January 2020, task force members on average made about seven times more arrests resulting in criminal charges than the median for all Philadelphia police officers, an Inquirer analysis of court records found.

The idea behind such units is proactive policing: affording skilled plainclothes officers time and leeway to conduct investigations to get illegal guns off the streets and avert crimes before shots are fired. Uniformed patrol units, by comparison, are more reactive, typically responding to radio calls or patrolling designated areas.

“The rationale is: Somebody’s got to go out there and enforce gun laws,” said Peter Moskos, a criminologist and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

It was a similar vision that helped spawn a previous iteration — the South Gang Task Force — part of the Focused Deterrence gun violence intervention strategy piloted in South Philly in 2013.

That task force was assigned to gather intelligence on people labeled “gang offenders,” often using social media surveillance.

However, some criticized overreliance on officers’ interpretation of social media. The gang database “wasn’t that accurate,” said Reuben Jones, who runs the community organization Frontline Dads and was social services director for Focused Deterrence. He came to see the initiative as criminalizing or even harassing Black men from poor neighborhoods, without fulfilling its promise of also providing targeted resources and supports.

The city abandoned Focused Deterrence after just a few years amid staff turnover, funding constraints, and shifting political winds. (The city has since launched a citywide initiative, Group Violence Intervention, with less reliance on police task forces.)

The current South Task Force uses some of the same policing practices, such as intense social media monitoring, to guide on-the-ground surveillance and generate arrests.

They were not equipped with body-worn cameras, an important oversight mechanism.

The current unit has attracted scrutiny from defense lawyers such as Michael Mellon, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. He views the task force as akin to other Philadelphia “Five Squads” — specialized groups of handpicked, “exceptional” officers, within districts or citywide units, who tend not to be closely supervised.

“This position attracts the cowboys. It encourages cowboyism,” he said, noting that Five Squads have figured in decades of policing scandals. “They’re supposed to get out there and stop the guys with the guns, and do it by any means necessary.”

Some officers were accused of physical abuse and fabrication before they were elevated to the South Task Force.

Sean McKnight was fired after being criminally charged with beating a man while on duty in 2013 — shattering his orbital bone — and falsifying charges to cover it up. The city paid a $200,000 settlement. But the man died before McKnight’s 2016 trial. McKnight was acquitted and rehired.

Sarpong, along with Officer John Smart, is accused in a pending civil lawsuit of slamming a man to the ground and holding a baton and a knee against his neck. The man was charged in 2018 with resisting arrest, but those charges were dropped. City lawyers representing the officers denied all allegations of misconduct.

Two other officers, Cucinelli and Officer Robert McMahon, wereinvolved in a fatal shootout in 2018 before joining the task force, as were two other South Philly cops. They killed 48-year-old Charles Meadows after he fled a bicycle stop and then, according to police, fired seven shots at them. Four years later, the Police Department has not publicly said whether the shooting was justified, but Cucinelli and McMahon have remained on the force.

Here and in other cities, such plainclothes units have been prone to scandal. Eight members of Baltimore’s now-infamous Gun Trace Task Force were convicted of racketeering and other charges. In New York City, a plainclothes anti-crime unit was dismantled over complaints of unconstitutional tactics, though Mayor Eric Adams recently revived it.

Hans Menos, a vice president at the Center for Policing Equity and former head of Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, said such units often lack basic guardrails. And when concerns are raised, police officials may downplay them due to their assumption that risks are inherent to proactive gun or drug enforcement.

“We expect it, almost, as a by-product of them keeping us safe,” Menos said.

Unpredictable situations, dangerous consequences

A Philadelphia Police directive warns of the perils of plainclothes policing: “Civilians may not immediately recognize plainclothes officers, prompting calls to 911 or unpredictable behavioral responses.”

The South Task Force members have indeed encountered unpredictable behavior. In June 2020, Mendoza and Camacho arrested a man named Gihad Topping after he allegedly got into a shootout with the plainclothes officers. That daytime encounter further escalated when officers returned to their car and encountered a person inside, who then punched one officer in the face. Topping is now awaiting trial on charges that include four counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

In official accounts of that shootout, and of the fatal encounter with TJ, task force members said they made their identities known.

In the 2020 shooting, the officers reported hearing Topping yell, “Cops! Cops! Cops!”

And in the shooting of TJ, Outlaw said the department has evidence the officers put on their lights before the boy shot at their car. She did not say what the evidence was, and the department has declined to release playground security video.

The arrest of Carl Jarrett in February risked turning into a similarly deadly situation. At a preliminary hearing last month, Camacho and Sarpong testified that Jarrett, 18, had pulled out a gun and pointed it at Camacho’s unmarked car.

In an interview, Jarrett said he was walking down the street when suddenly two unmarked cars pulled up and a group of men jumped out.

“I was scared. They pulled guns out on me! I thought they was regular people” — that is, civilians — “until they told me to get down,” said Jarrett, in jail awaiting trial for an illegal gun and for assault, a charge related to pointing a gun at an officer.

Philadelphia police directives on plainclothes officers, which are posted on the department’s website but are heavily redacted, do not appear to include guidance on pedestrian stops. The directive does advise that unmarked cars should not “routinely” make traffic stops and should not initiate a pursuit “barring exigent circumstances.”

Jillian Snider, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College, policy director for criminal justice at the free market think tank R Street and a retired New York police officer who spent a decade in plainclothes duty, said the work assigned to these units is inherently risky.

But, she added, officers should be highly trained in how to engage members of the public for the safety of everyone, including the officers.

“I never one time had anyone say ‘I thought this person was trying to rob me or carjack me.’ I think it’s because we are trained to immediately identify ourselves as police. I also wore my bulletproof vest as my outermost garment and my badge around my neck. My first word would be ‘Police!’”

Waters, who crashed into another car after officers tailed him, said it didn’t occur to him that he might be the target of a pursuit by a gun task force.

In testimony at Waters’ preliminary hearing for the assault-by-vehicle case, Camacho did not mention suspected guns. He said he was on patrol with Officers Jonathan Sweeney and McKnight when they decided to follow Waters and radio for a marked car to stop him. He said the cause was tinted windows and being double parked.

The other driver, Matthew Melchiorre, faults both Waters and the police.

“I’m lucky I didn’t get killed,” said Melchiorre, 47, who works as a hauler and said his insurance premiums skyrocketed. “Everyone was guilty. The kid that did it, he was on two gun cases. And the guys following him, they’re tailing him at noon on a Tuesday. You have to watch how you chase someone. … That was a real bad situation. The city leaves a lot to be desired.”

Waters, after 18 months in jail, agreed to plead guilty in all three cases. He has 1-year-old twin daughters he’s never met. He said he believed a plea deal offered the fastest way home.

Jump-out squad

“Jumping out,” as a police tactic, has been around for decades.

Moskos, the John Jay professor, said officers may rely on the element of surprise to reduce the chance a suspect might toss a gun, run away, or worse.

“You don’t want to give the guy a chance to pull the gun on you,” he said.

Some who live in heavily policed neighborhoods view it differently.

“It’s a problem the Black community has complained about for a long time,” said Reuben Jones, the community organizer. In his view, the combination of social-media surveillance and jumping out is a concerning new twist: stop-and-frisk for the digital age. If officers encounter “someone they suspect has done something or is wanted for something, they can jump out on them and cut through the red tape.”

According to Terence Jones, a former Philadelphia police officer who runs a police-accountability nonprofit, Total Justice, the task force has a reputation: “These guys always jump out at you and don’t identify themselves.”

Basil Anderson, 22, described their practices as “terrorizing people.”

“They will ride by and say, ‘Get down! Hands on the ground.’ (To) people just walking down the street, they will say, ‘Lift your shirt up! You got a gun?’”

Last December, he was leaving a corner store when Mendoza and other officers confronted him. Anderson, who as a juvenile was adjudicated delinquent on burglary and gun possession charges, admits fleeing: “I thought they was going to shoot me,” he said. He made it only a block.

The arrest paperwork alleges Anderson fired a gun and attempted to kick and disarm police. Anderson says the gun discharged accidentally through his pocket when Mendoza tackled him. Then, he said, “They kicked me. They punched me. They beat my face into the ground … hit me in the head with a walkie-talkie.” His cousin, Damarcus Tucker, said he saw the beating, and yelled at the officers.

Anderson is facing charges of aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and possessing the illegal gun.

Two months later, Tucker would run into the same officers while driving in South Philadelphia. A car blocked him as he tried to pull out of a side street — and a man jumped out with his gun drawn, he said.

Tucker said he thought it was a carjacking, and fled on foot. “I don’t want to be shot and killed for my car,” he said.

About a block away, he said, the officers grabbed him and began to pummel him — he believes in retaliation for his reaction to Anderson’s arrest.

A neighbor, Christopher Haymes, heard someone screaming “Help me!,” peered out his window, and saw a group of officers “punching on” Tucker. He said Tucker wasn’t resisting as the officers struck him repeatedly while asking about a gun.

“They were so stuck on trying to find a gun, which they didn’t find nowhere on my block,” Haymes said.

Getting guns off the street

Seizing guns has been a priority for Outlaw, who has tweeted photos of recovered contraband. She has spoken often of the record-breaking 6,000 guns recovered last year as an important step to curb unprecedented surges in homicide and gun violence.

From that perspective, the task force officers appeared to excel.

For instance, Mendoza and Camacho were praised by the Third District’s Twitter account in 2019 for “another dangerous weapon and illegal (drugs) taken off the street.”

Moskos agrees enforcing gun laws is crucial work. Still, he said, anti-crime task forces must have a well-articulated mission coupled with strong oversight.

“Where you get production judged by stats, whether it’s arrests or guns or drugs, that starts to take over everything,” he said.

That, he said, is “when things go bad.”

Those who encountered the task force described the single-minded focus on gun seizures as coloring the encounters.

“He wanted a handgun. That’s all he wanted. He kept saying, ‘Where’s the handgun? Where’s the handgun?” said Loren Scott, who was stopped by Sarpong and another officer in May 2021. He said they searched his car without a warrant. “I kept saying, ‘There’s no handguns!’” They did find marijuana, and arrested him. The case was later withdrawn.

Another man, Eric Potter, was at his grandmother’s house last December when Sarpong and other officers “smashed down” the front door. According to Potter’s lawyer, Emmett Madden, the officers had spotted Potter at a gun range. At his house a week later, they broke down two interior doors in search of guns, Madden said, not giving Potter a chance to unlock them. “They found no gun,” he added. They arrested Potter for having illegally been in possession of a gun while at the range.

In two cases, defendants described officers placing them under arrest — and then, after 20 or 30 minutes, producing the guns they had allegedly ditched.

One was Tucker, who has previous gun arrests and a conviction for aggravated assault, said he was unarmed when the task force stopped him. He was charged with gun possession and spent almost two months in jail before the case was dismissed.

Another was Terrell Legett, a 19-year-old arrested in February in front of a Police Athletic League rec center at Sixth Street and Snyder Avenue.

He was headed inside, he said, planning to play basketball and check in with the PAL director for a lead on a better-paying job. But a black sedan pulled up, and men with guns jumped out, yelling, according to Legett, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”

“I’m not knowing if I’m going to die, or what’s going to happen,” said Legett, who fled. It was a task force team, there to arrest him for witness intimidation related to Instagram posts including a photo of a witness statement in a homicide case. They also allege Legett called the witness a “rat” in his post, and uploaded a photo of himself outside the witness’ house.

Legett, who had no criminal record, said he did not realize any posts he made might have constituted a crime. Then, as he sat in the police car, “(the task force officers) looked around for quite a while,” he said. They returned with a gun.

He said he has no idea where the gun came from. But he was charged with gun possession. He remains jailed on $250,000 bail while awaiting a preliminary hearing.

To Menos, the former Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission director, officials in cities across the country are too quick to defend and rely on units like the task force — even when their tactics lead to scandals that erode public trust.

In his view, they should be rethinking their approach.

“We have so many systems of punishment and not enough systems of care,” Menos said. “We focus on (crime) and say, let’s create a specialized unit to address crime … but not systems of care for our communities to say: ‘We can prevent these crimes a different way.’”

———

(Chris A. Williams and Dylan Purcell contributed reporting.)

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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