PHILADELPHIA — There is justice. Then there's street justice.
David Vernitsky said yesterday that he felt like he got a painful dose of both.
"Those officers shouldn't have done what they did," Vernitsky remarked, understatedly.
In a move that rattled the city's law-enforcement community, District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham yesterday filed criminal charges against two police officers accused of busting Vernitsky's jaw after catching him spray-painting a congratulatory message to a newlywed couple on a wall in North Philadelphia.
Not only did the officers unmercifully beat Vernitsky, said Abraham, but they tried to cover up the thrashing by intentionally failing to document the pedestrian stop. After working over Vernitsky, the officers told him to scram, she said. He was not charged with a crime.
Abraham ordered the two officers – Sheldon Fitzgerald and Howard Hill III – to turn themselves in and submit to arrest within 72 hours. The officers, both five-year veterans from the 25th District on Whitaker Avenue near Erie, have been suspended without pay and will be fired, authorities said.
The charges came a week after Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey fired four officers and disciplined four others for their role in a videotaped beating that gave Philadelphia a black eye. Hill and Fitzgerald, who did not return phone messages left by the Daily News, were not involved in the May 5 beating, authorities said.
Ramsey stood stoically by Abraham's side as she detailed the case against Hill, 30, and Fitzgerald, 29, during a morning news conference at the District Attorney's Office in Center City.
"I do think it's an understatement that excessive force simply will not be tolerated in our department," Ramsey said after Abraham finished. "It's very unfortunate in the sense that, in light of the most recent videotaped incident, these things coming in short order."
For the second time this month, Ramsey stressed that the behavior of these officers was not a reflection on the 6,700-member force as a whole.
And once again, John J. McNesby, president of Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police, lashed out at Ramsey.
"This is a disgrace," McNesby said yesterday. "It can't get any worse . . . Instead of tracking murders in Philadelphia, we should be tracking the persecution of police officers. It's open season on police officers. Not only do we have to watch out for the criminals on the street, but we have to watch out for the people we work for."
McNesby said he believes that Vernitsky fabricated the allegations against Fitzgerald and Hill, and asserted that Vernitsky didn't immediately go to the hospital. McNesby also said Internal Affairs investigators have yet to interview Fitzgerald and Hill to get their version of events.
Vernitsky, 37, seemed a bit shell-shocked by the media attention. In the early afternoon, reporters staked out his home in the city's Logan section, then waited for him to arrive at his job at a North Philly packaging company.
Vernitsky responded to questions from a reporter with "yes, "no," and "I don't know" – the latter when asked if he planned to file a civil lawsuit. He said he wished the officers had simply arrested him for the graffiti, rather than attack and release him.
Vernitsky's police encounter began at about 12:30 a.m. last Aug. 26, near 4th Street and Wyoming Avenue, where Fitzgerald and Hill spotted him spray-painting on the wall of a beauty-supply business.
He had just attended a wedding in Port Richmond with some other buddies and wanted to scrawl a tribute to the couple. He had spray-painted the first few letters when Fitzgerald and Hill drove by in a police cruiser, according to Abraham.
Hill, who was driving, made a quick U-turn and Vernitsky ran off. That's when Fitzgerald jumped out of the squad car, chasing Vernitsky. When Fitzgerald caught up to Vernitsky, he knocked him down and kicked and punched him, Abraham said. Hill then exited the car and joined his partner, she said.
"The two officers began to pummel and kick and beat Mister Vernitsky," Abraham said.
The officers then handcuffed Vernitsky, then 36, and threw him into the police car. They searched his pockets and demanded to know if he was wanted for any crimes, Abraham said.
When the officers learned Vernitsky was not on a wanted list, they returned his identification and told him to get lost, she said.
Vernitsky's friends caught up with him about half block from the graffiti spot. They took him home, and later to the Albert Einstein Medical Center, where he was hospitalized for five days for a broken and dislocated jaw, bruises, and injuries to his face, ribs and groin, Abraham said.
The next morning, Vernitsky's mother contacted Internal Affairs, which launched an investigation and later referred the case to city prosecutors, Abraham said.
Abraham charged Fitzgerald and Hill with aggravated assault, a first-degree felony, simple assault, reckless endangerment, tampering with public records and criminal conspiracy. Abraham said the officers could face substantial prison time.
In addition, Ramsey has reopened a previously closed citizen complaint filed against Fitzgerald and Hill in 2007. That complaint waged allegations similar to Vernitsky's, said police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore.
"There was a complaint in their history that was very similar to this allegation," Vanore said. "In light of this case, the commissioner wanted it reopened."
Internal Affairs investigators were unable to sustain the allegations in that case because the victim was uncooperative, Vanore said.
Yesterday, Kelvyn Anderson, deputy director of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, said Abraham's actions against Fitzgerald and Hill were highly unusual, if not unprecedented.
"It's certainly rather extraordinary for the district attorney to take such a step," Anderson said. "Obviously they felt that they had enough evidence to do so. It will be interesting to see what happens from here."
Hill comes from a law-enforcement family. His brother is a police officer in the 15th District in the Northeast and his father is a retired corrections officer.
Howard Hill Jr., 52, defended his son yesterday, calling him an honest and hardworking man who defended his country while in the Army.
"It almost seems like a witch hunt," Hill Jr. said.
"What aggravates me is he is not being given the benefit of the doubt. The district attorney is turning around and making it sound like he's already been convicted, and that's wrong. That's defamation of character."
He said his son learned about the allegations against him on April 18. His son came to him, his head in his hands. When he looked up at his father, he had tears in his eyes. He swore that the allegations were untrue, Hill Jr. said.
"I said, 'As your father, I want to know the truth.' I asked him straight out," Hill Jr. said. "You can tell when you have a kid when there is something they are telling you that's not the truth. I can just look at him and know. He's got one of those faces."
Hill Jr. said his son explained that if he had used force against someone, there'd be a reason and the person would be arrested.
"It just doesn't add up," Hill Jr. said. "The whole thing stinks to high heaven."
Hill Jr. questioned what kind of man, especially a 36-year-old, would be out in the middle of the night spray-painting a wall.
Vernitsky has had a few prior brushes with the law. In 2006, he was charged with criminal mischief. A judge sentenced him to 25 hours of community service. In 1997, he was charged with arson, reckless endangerment, risking catastrophe and criminal mischief. He was found guilty of criminal mischief only and got one year probation, court records show.