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Philly cops charged in attack on graffiti artist

Two Philadelphia police officers accused of beating a man they saw painting graffiti were charged Tuesday with assault and falsifying records.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two Philadelphia police officers accused of beating a man they saw painting graffiti were charged Tuesday with assault and falsifying records.

Charges in the August attack come about three weeks after a videotaped beating of three suspects by a swarm of Philadelphia police shone a spotlight on the use of force in the department.

Authorities say Officers Sheldon Fitzgerald and Howard Hill III broke the graffiti painter's jaw on one side and dislocated it on the other before throwing him head first into the back of a patrol car. The man was never charged with a crime.

"This is an unfortunate incident, but it is in no way a reflection on the entire department," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said at a news conference Tuesday. "I do think that it is another statement that excessive force just will not be tolerated in our department."

District Attorney Lynne Abraham said her office completed its investigation into the attack on David Vernitsky earlier this month after receiving a complaint of excessive force in November.

Spray-painting congratulations
Vernitsky had attended a wedding and was spray-painting congratulations to the couple on the wall of a beauty supply house in the city's Feltonville section when police saw him, officials said.

Vernitsky fled, but the officers caught up and beat him, kicking him in the groin, bruising his face and ribs, and knocking out three teeth, Abraham said at the news conference.

The officers released Vernitsky after they checked for outstanding warrants and found none, officials said. The 36-year-old Philadelphia man was taken by friends to a hospital, where he stayed a few days, Abraham said.

The officers didn't document their contact with Vernitsky. Instead, officials said, the pair made a false entry in their log showing they were elsewhere at the time of the beating.

Fitzgerald and Hill were suspended without pay pending trial, Ramsey said. The pair was notified of the charges Tuesday and have 72 hours to turn themselves in.

A telephone listing for a Sheldon Fitzgerald was not in service Tuesday. No listing could be found for Hill or Vernitsky. A phone message left for John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in Philadelphia, was not immediately returned.

The officers, who have been on the force five years each, face charges of aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, tampering with public records and conspiracy.

Earlier this month, a television news helicopter videotaped 18 city police officers and a transit officer kicking and beating three shooting suspects as they were dragged from their car. Ramsey said last week that four officers would be fired and four others disciplined for their roles in the beatings.