Tag Archives: Gary Skerski

Grassroots support for Philly’s embattled cops

 

On Halloween morning in 2007, police officer Chuck Cassidy of the city’s 35th district pulled up to a local Dunkin’ Donuts to perform a routine security check and perhaps grab a fresh cup of joe to begin his work day.

Bright sunshine of the morning that day combined with the lesser light inside the business made it impossible for Cassidy to see inside the establishment.

Little did he know as he pulled open the door to that innocent coffee and donut shop, one that Cassidy had entered many times before, that it would be the last door he would ever open.

Inside was an armed robber who turned and fired a gunshot into Cassidy before the officer ever knew what hit him.

Thus began the most deadly string of murders of Philly’s Finest in decades. Just seven months after Cassidy’s murder, in May of 2008, Sergeant Steve Liczbinski responded to a robbery in progress taking place at a bank branch inside a supermarket of his 24th police district. It would be the final call of his career, as Liczbinski was also gunned down in cold blood by the robbers.

Philly cops and their supporters mourned the loss of these two popular officers throughout the summer of 2008. Little did they know it was not over yet. Not nearly.

In early September, the city’s police were again driven to shock when officer Isabel ‘Izzie’ Nazario was killed. She and her partner were involved in a vehicular pursuit of a stolen car, though not in direct pursuit, when the driver suddenly emerged from a blind intersection and slammed into their cruiser at full speed.

The loss of a third officer in less than a year seemed like dirt being rubbed into an already open wound. Then the unthinkable happened – again.

Just a couple of weeks later, still in September, officer Pat McDonald pulled over a vehicle for a simple traffic violation, something that many of the city’s police officers do every single day, something that I did hundreds of times. Only this would be Pat’s final car stop. This time the driver was a wanted man, and he decided to shoot and kill Pat McDonald rather than risk returning to jail.

It was official, Philly’s cops were under siege.
People were taking shots at us, running from us, physically challenging us like never before. The thug mentality had overcome the city, and race became a part of the issue as each of the cop-killers faces flashed across television screens.

Former Mayor John Street’s notorious statement that “the brothers and sisters are running this town now” seemed to be taking on a gangsta tone.

Something was seriously wrong here in Philly, and many of our citizens stepped forward with words of condolence and togetherness, some even with anger at what was happening.

But did they then go back to their communities, to their families, and begin to make real changes that would back up their words?

Less than two months later, Sergeant Tim Simpson, a fellow supervisor in the exact same squad of officers in which Steve Lisczbinski had worked at the time of his murder, responded to yet another robbery call. Like Lisczbinski, it would be Simpson’s final call.

As he responded to the robbery, Simpson entered the intersection of Aramingo and Allegheny Avenues. Here, a drunk driver in a speeding Camaro slammed into Simpson’s cruiser. The 24th district had lost their 2nd Sergeant in six months, and Philly’s cops had lost their fifth officer in under a year.

A long, cold winter of grieving got underway, and in the middle of it just about two weeks ago, young 25-year-old father-to-be John Pawlowski and his partner pulled up on a disturbance on the highway involving an argument between two men.

When Pawlowski confronted the aggressor, this male pulled the trigger on a gun which he had concealed in the pocket of his jacket. As officer Pawlowski’s partner drew his gun and killed the assailant, John fell to the ground, the sixth Philly cop killed in the line of duty in less than a year and a half.

There have been seven Philadelphia police officers killed in the line of duty stretching to the robbery-murder of officer Gary Skerski in May of 2006.

The violence against the police officers who are trying their best to protect the citizens of an increasingly hostile city was just too much for a young woman by the name of Courtney Agger.

Not the wife or family member of an officer, Courtney was just a young woman in her twenties who was among the many who were sick and tired of all of the attacks on cops. She wanted to do something, and in the spirit of the 21st century she took to the internet.

A member of the ‘Facebook’ community that is perhaps today’s most popular internet gathering place, Courtney started a grass-roots effort to organize a march in support of Philly cops. In remembrance of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, both in recent years and throughout the past.

Her little Facebook group advertised a march to take place on Sunday, March 1st, 2009 beginning near the Skate Zone facility in Northeast Philadelphia and proceeding around the Northeast Airport to the home of Philly’s 8th police district at Academy & Red Lion Roads.

Agger likely envisioned dozens, perhaps hundreds if it went well, of her friends and other sympathizers marching in support. Little did she know the power of both the internet and of her cause.

At yesterdays march, thousands turned out in an overwhelming outpouring of emotion and support for Philadelphia’s embattled police force. There were a number of police brass and union officials on hand, regular officers like myself, as well as numerous friends and family members. T-shirts, sweatshirts, wristbands, flags and other items were sold.

In the week leading up to the march, Philadelphia police detective Al Ford was attempting to serve a warrant when he was shot in the leg. Another officer returned fire and killed Ford’s assailant. Ford was taken to the hospital and is going to be okay, but his shooting highlights that this is far from over.

As a color guard led Sunday’s procession, Courtney Agger had to allow herself to feel just a little pride for what she had accomplished. It was completely justified. Grass-roots support from the community such as that showed by Agger is absolutely appreciated and even needed by the Philadelphia Police Department.

We have been seriously demoralized by what has happened in recent months, and outreach such as this sincerely touches us all and reminds us of why we do what we do, that it is important to continue, and that it actually affects peoples lives.

Numb…Again

Another Philadelphia police officer lies dead this morning. He was only 25 years old. His young wife is now a widow as she carries their first and only child in her womb, a child that won’t be born until the coming summer is almost over. A child that will never know it’s father, never even get to meet him.

He is John Pawlowski of the PPD’s 35th district, and he is the 7th Philly cop to be killed in the line of duty in the past 33 months. I remember a time when it seemed that we lost a brother or sister officer every few years. Now we don’t even get six months, and often it’s been much less.

There was a time when it made me sad and angry. But the wave of murders of our officers over the past couple years has simply left me numb. I can’t even watch the stories on TV anymore beyond the headlines to get the basic facts. I am well aware that the danger is part of the job for which we have all signed up, but I want it to just all stop, even if just for a couple years.

Part of the problem for cops is that we do a job that few others could ever possibly relate to, but we can all relate to one another. No matter what our current responsibilities in this career that we have chosen, we were all John Pawlowski at some point.

We all put on the uniform and the badge, strapped the gun to our hip, slid behind the wheel of a marked police car, and slipped out into the night to patrol the streets of Philadelphia. It is alternately thrilling and dangerous, exciting and deadly. It is sometimes slow, but rarely boring. And always, always, there is the next corner to turn, around which may lie one of the funniest things that you’ve ever seen, or the end of your life.

You work those streets as a cop in a squad of men and women who become your extended family. You are with them almost every day or night in those circumstances and situations. Especially as a young person in your early years on the job, you form a bond in that squad that will never leave you.

My squad was special to me, and always will be. It included my own brother, Mike Veasey, with whom I had the absolute pleasure to work with as a partner for a few years.

Our squad in the early years of the 1990’s also included others who I will also always carry in my heart: Dave Lee, Juan Perez, Lisa Collins, Tom McComesky, Bob Donahue, Joe Kramer, Tommy DiFlorio, Aaron Horn, Chris Faber, Kevin Bethel, Thom Hoban, Stevie Susson, Denise McDonough, Nick Campolongo, Herbie Felder, Kevin Wong, Charlie Kelly, Ray Plymouth, Anne Klineburger, Eddie Blunt, Patti Parks, Bobby Bonds, Dominic Tursi, Dennis Andraczak, Tommy Key, Gary Burrell, Louie & Stephanie Velazquez, and many others.

There are so many people that touch you on this job, that you lean on to get you through the tough times, that you laugh with during the good times. Not only those folks in your own squad, but also those in the other squads within your district, and other cops all over the city, and the many business and community people that become a part of our everyday lives.

Working the streets is addictive. It is an experience that is difficult to describe. Having that kind of respect from most people, experiencing that affection from folks you don’t even know, and carrying the burden of the power that the people have bestowed on you that includes taking away someones freedom and even their life. Only police officers who have worn that uniform and stepped out on those patrols will ever know that feeling.

This was the life that young John Pawlowski was living, the same one that I lived, that my brother lived, that our father lived. The same one that every street cop has lived. It is what makes losing John, and all the others in recent months and years, so very difficult.

It is always worth mentioning them all by name, because what has happened recently will forever link them: Gary Skerski, Chuck Cassidy, Steve Liczbinski, Isabel Nazario, Pat McDonald, Tim Simpson and now John Pawlowski.

We are them. They are us. It is Valentine’s Day, and a young woman carrying a baby should be waking up to her young husband and thinking about things like cards and flowers and candy and dinner. Instead she has to plan a funeral. I am numb…again.

Goodbye, Tim Simpson

I didn’t find out until about five minutes ago. Last night, I went to bed at around 11:00 pm, and so I missed the news at that time. Just waking up this morning, I poured myself the first cup of coffee of the day, and fired up the computer. Then a local news anchor said those words on TV:

Our top story, the Philadelphia Police Department is again in mourning this morning…

My head whipped around to the television screen. Sergeant Tim Simpson of the 24th district was dead following a horrific car crash at approximately 10:45 pm last night. He was killed at Aramingo & Allegheny Avenues while responding to a robbery call, possibly by a drunk driver who was speeding.

This is the second of our officers to lose their in an auto accident within the last few months, after Izzy Nazario was killed back in the late summer.

Simpson is the fourth Philly cop killed during 2008, the fifth within the last full year, the sixth on-duty in a terrible two-and-a-half years stretching back to Gary Skerski’s murder in spring of 2006.

With Walter Barclay’s death from wounds that he received decades ago in a shooting, it marks the seventh Philly cop to die of an on-duty incident in that same time period.

My stomach flips again, and I say a prayer for the officer, his family and friends, his co-workers, and all police officers. It has grown beyond ridiculous at this point. We got almost, almost, a two-month break this time. We deserve years without such tragedy at this point.

They all need to be remembered as a group: Walt Barclay, Gary Skerski, Chuck Cassidy, Steve Liczbinski, Isabel Nazario, Pat McDonald, and now Tim Simpson.

Ironically, Simpson had worked closely with Liczbinski, and was the officer given the responsibility of cuffing the murderer of his fellow Sergeant and former partner just this past spring.

We will again cover our badges with mourning crepes, again put on our blouse coats, again make funeral arrangements, again bury a fellow officer.

This time it will be a brother with a wife and children who we will bury during a season when we, and they, are normally supposed to be giving thanks.

To make matters possibly worse to me, I saw a picture of the officer. He looked a lot like an officer who I served with early in my police career back in the 6th district, Terry Simpson.

I wonder if they are related, possibly brothers.That would make an already intolerable situation even more personal, with my own brother also on the job and both of us knowing Terry. We will find out more of these details in the coming hours and days, but there is one thing that we already know.

The Philadelphia Police Department has a very dark cloud hanging over it right now. The winter cold has settled over the area this morning, the first real morning of frost. It feels even colder now. This has to end. Doesn’t it?

The Church and the death penalty

It might seem to some that a topic as fraught with controversy as the death penalty might not be the best topic for this ‘Sunday Sermon’ series that I have going as a regular feature here at the website.

However, these are not normal times, and these times have resulted not only in my own personal re-evaluation of the issue, but also have resulted in my own increased research into the topic.

These ‘times’ that I am speaking about involve the murder of four on-duty uniformed Philadelphia police officers within the past calendar year, including last week’s cold-blooded assassination of P/O Pat McDonald. This follows on the heels of another similar murder of P/O Gary Skerski just 2 1/2 years ago.

Gary was the only one of these recently murdered officers whom I knew personally. He was alternately gruff and gregarious, but if you knew him well enough to be taken into his inner confidences it was usually the humor that you were exposed to: Gary was quite simply a very funny guy.

He also was a man who cared a great deal about supporting his family, and although his career had taken him to a relatively safe position in community relations, he would go back onto the often hard streets, making overtime as a part of the ‘Safe Streets’ effort to lower the drug trade in Philadelphia. While working this detail one night, Gary was gunned down by an armed robber.

When Gary Skerski was murdered, I lost someone whom I had laughed with, ate meals with, even worked a few shifts on the same details and in the same vehicles with. For some reason though, throughout the entirety of my police career, even through most of these recent murders, I maintained my status as one of the few police officers who were not in support of the death penalty.

I believe that these are personal, individual decisions that each of us has to make, coming to peace with the decision in our own hearts and minds.
I fully understand why police officers in particular support the measure as a legitimate penalty. Without opening up to the details of my feelings, they were based on an opposition to retribution in the form of vengeance, as well as an inability to reconcile the killing of many guilty murderers with the death of even one innocent man.

I believe that killing other human beings is the single worst thing that any of us can do, be that by abortion, homicide, accident, capital punishment, what have you.

Sometimes it is justified, such as our actions as police officers in trying to save our own lives or the lives of others that are in immediate mortal danger. For these same considerations, I see the justification during times of war, when an enemy is trying to kill you and your forces, and will do so if you don’t get them first. And of course accidents, as long as they are truly that and not the result of our negligence, such as in a DUI, are unfortunate and should result in our sorrow, but certainly nothing that we should be or feel guilty about for long.

But to kill a person just because they killed someone else always seemed to me to be a simple ‘tit for tat’, a product simply of vengeance that lowered us as individuals and as a society to the original murderers level.

The second consideration, the innocent man, is also strong with me. If we eliminated all the problems with the death penalty as currently constituted, if we made it swift, sure, and certain, we still would put innocent people to death from time to time. The deterrence produced by numerous executions would not reconcile for me if we put even one truly innocent man to death, and the odds are that it would happen over time.

But then this series of police murders happened, and when Pat McDonald was killed it was too much for me. The last straw had finally broken this camel’s back.

In my research, it turns out that the Catholic Church is not in opposition to the civil authority of the State in carrying out capital punishment, as I always believed it was. This power derives much of its authority from scripture itself, though the advisability of executing that power depends on all the circumstances around a particular case.

I do not know what the magic answer might be, but we as a society need to come up with a way to make the punishment meet sure, certain, and swift criteria. If we can do that, then I have reached the point where I personally am willing to support the death penalty. Perhaps such swift executions of cop killers, spousal murderers, neighborhood drug-related killers, serial killers and others will indeed prove to be a deterrent, and maybe they will result in fewer police funerals.

The Church is not in opposition to the idea of capital punishment, with the Catechism stating that it is allowable in situations of extreme gravity. With that being the official position of my Church, which matters to me and which should matter to all Catholics, then neither am I against the death penalty based on the individual situation.

NOTE: This is the continuation of a regular ‘Sunday Sermon’ series, each topic of which can be read by clicking on to that below “Label”

The one that got away

It was just after 1:00 AM in the freezing cold early morning hours of Friday, January 30th, 1970. To put in perspective how long ago it was, just three weeks earlier the Beatles had performed together in the studio for the final time, and it was just 3 weeks since a new soap opera ‘All My Children’ had made its debut on television.

The remnant of a previous snowfall still coated the ground as rookie Philadelphia police officer Fred Cione pushed his red patrol car around the corner and into the 1700 block of west Oxford Street in the city’s 23rd district.

My wife, the former Debbie Marshall Howe, grew up just two doors from Fred’s family on Huntingdon Street in the city’s Kensington section. As a 14-year old budding adolescent at that time, she already recognized that Freddie, a single Vietnam vet, was ‘really handsome’ and ‘built’.

As this handsome 25-year old rookie cop drove onto Oxford Street that night he came upon three men and found something suspicious about them, or their behavior, or just the fact of them being on the streets in that location on that kind of night.

What we do know for sure is that Freddie got out and approached the three, and that one of them opened fire on him with three gunshots, one of which went into this chest and another into his gut. The men ran off, and Freddie was left to die like a dog in a North Philly gutter. That was almost three full decades ago.

Just last week, in my role as an instructor with the Philadelphia Police Department’s Advanced Training Unit, I was teaching a CPR class. One of the cops in attendance wore the name tag ‘Cione’, and I asked if he was a relative of Fred. The young man responded that he was Fred Cione’s nephew.

I am quite sure that he has heard the story a number of times already in his life. His own father, Fred’s brother Nick, became a Philly cop following his brother’s death. Two of Nick’s own sons subsequently have become Philly cops as well.

The murder of Fred Cione on that cold January night came back to me in the past couple of days as we here in Philly suffered the murder of yet another of our young officers, Pat McDonald. Pat is the fifth Philly cop to be murdered in the last 2 1/2 years.

But there is one big difference between the murders of Fred Cione and that of Pat McDonald and other Philadelphia officers murdered in the line of duty such as Chuck Cassidy, Gary Skerski, Steve Liczbinski, Izzy Nazario, Danny Faulkner, Lauretha Vaird, Steve Dmytryk, Danny Boyle, and Leddie Brown.

The big difference is that the murder of Fred Cione remains the only murder of a Philadelphia police officer that has never been solved.

Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo and his top investigators were never able to find anything to solve the case: no real suspects, no murder weapon, no motive.

The police Homicide Unit has never let the case die, assigning top detectives to take a new look at it every so often, but no one has ever come up with any substantive leads. The only reliable witness, a female, was brought in to look at thousands of photos over the years, but was never able to identify anyone.

The case remains the ultimate frustration for all of us as Philadelphia police officers. When one of us goes down on the job at the hands of a bad guy, the very least that we expect is that our brothers and sisters will hunt our killer down to the ends of the earth, and bring that killer to justice, one way or another.

The three evil specters whom it was the unfortunate fate of Freddie Cione to run into on that cold, dark, wintry January night so long ago remain demons that we have never been able to exorcise.

Think about and remember Freddie Cione as you drive past his mural. It is painted on the Aramingo Avenue side of his neighborhood recreation center, just south of Lehigh Avenue. He shares the mural with Joey Friel, another neighborhood native killed in the line-of-duty.

We not only must never forget Fred Cione, but we must specifically remember him and his case, and never allow justice to elude us again.