On this bright, crisp Sunday morning in Port Richmond the sidewalks are empty, rolled up like old patio furniture. Here and there neighbors poke their faces out front doors to see what the weather’s like. Traffic on the street is slow; the few drivers who are out have that ‘just getting awake’ looks on their faces. It’s the sort of day you imagine people sleeping in late.
But just when you think the quiet will go on forever, you hear people chanting slogans. The cries have the sound of protest, like people marching in unison for a common cause. They come from a playground near Indiana and Elkhart Streets, where a little boy about 10 years old happens to be walking along a deserted sidewalk playing with his cell phone. The boy looks around as if determining the source of the protest then walks in the direction of the noise, his gait accelerating a bit. It’s obvious he wants to find out what all the commotion is about. He skips down the street like he’s going to a country fair but then he slows considerably once he realizes there’s something serious about the noise he hears.
Eleven years ago, little Billy Panas was probably just like this kid, walking around the neighborhood, thinking of his mom and dad, his brothers and sisters, maybe a bicycle or a broken skateboard, his whole life stretched out before him like the infinite stretch of ocean one sees from the beach at Wildwood. Little boys, of course, cannot fully grasp the concept of death, so while this particular kid may have heard about the shooting of Billy Panas by off-duty Philadelphia police officer Sgt. Frank Tepper, his youth protects him from the horror of a life snuffed out so early in the game.
The boy disappears down a side street, unaware that life can bring on all kinds of experiences, including meeting a bully with a gun. Certainly Billy Panas, who was once 10 year old, didn’t expect to die on the evening of Saturday, November 21st, when he was allegedly shot in the chest by Tepper, a man whom neighbors describe as a bully who often took to waving his gun in the air in various confrontations with neighborhood teens. While there are different versions regarding how young Panas was shot, the fact remains that somebody, in this case Tepper, drew a gun to settle a dispute or an argument.
When Tepper allegedly fired that gun he crossed the line. And this is why the protestors—men and women as well as a mix of teens and children—are carrying signs and wearing red t-shirts asking for justice for the dead 21 year old boy.
The protestors march through the streets as neighbors offer their support. The police civil affairs unit follows the march in squad cars. Where are they marching to? They are headed to Tepper’s house, where Billy’s dad will speak through a megaphone, and where people will sign a petition to have Tepper put behind bars as quickly as possible rather than have him sit behind a plush desk answering police phones to the tune of $58,610 a year while DA Lynne Abraham (washing her hands like Pontius Pilate) hands the case over to a grand jury, a process that may take months, stretching on into spring, summer or fall of 2010.
The marchers hold a rally in front of Tepper’s house, where two uniformed police officers stand guard. The officers look a little tense as the crowd, numbering about 200, busy themselves with signing the petition, or going over to the pretzel, coffee and do-nut table for a little refreshment.
It looks like nobody’s home in Tepper’s house. Violence like this has horrible aftershocks: what must Tepper’s wife and children think, if indeed they are looking out from behind closed shades?
Billy Panas’ dad—he is a big guy with a full head of hair and a dog tag with a picture of his son on it—tells the crowd, “My wife Karen and I want to thank you. Remember one thing—there’s only one bad seed, all the other police are respectable and they’re doing their job. We have only vengeance in our hearts against the murderer of Billy Panas.” People applaud, and the two officers who had looked tense seem to relax. They even begin to smile a little bit but it’s not long before they go back to looking tense. The truth is never an easy potion to swallow. “If Tepper wasn’t a police officer he would be in jail right now. Why isn’t he in jail? This is the whole question,” Mr. Panas says. “What if he murdered somebody else’s child? It was obviously going to happen sooner or later, Tepper’s a loose cannon.”
A cannon so loose, as other news outlets have reported, he once sprayed mace at a group of children; a cannon so loose that he went for his gun when he thought his 8 year old kid was being harassed. A cannon so loose that fellow police officers refused to work with him. A cannon so loose he bypassed police procedure and didn’t call 911 the night he shot Panas.
So why wasn’t this man kicked off the force a long time ago?
“Tepper should not be on the street,” Mr. Panas told me. “We should not be paying for his food right now. That’s the whole thing in a nutshell. Do I think this process is being dragged out? Yes I do. It’s because he’s a cop. That’s all there is to it. Because he wears a badge, he’s protected. It’s not fair!”
And that’s true. The bottom line is that the Philadelphia Police Department is not inclined to think that one of their own can do anything wrong. In some ways the department is reluctant to call a spade a spade. This can make getting justice for Billy Panas a little bit like climbing the Matterhorn.
Mr. Panas, brave man that he is, knows how to hide his pain. It was evident when he started to joke with the crowd. One can only guess what some of his private moments must be like, when he lets his guard down, when memories of his son flood his mind.
Still, as protests go, the rally was remarkable in its civility. Here we have the family, friends and neighbors of a boy killed by a police officer, and yet here was a Philadelphia police car being used as a desk top for the scores of petition signers seeking justice for the shooter, a Philadelphia police officer. This “merging” together brought to light the bad seed concept: there are bad seeds everywhere, in every profession, from pope to president to lifeguard to wine steward to corner cop.
But it’s time to stop the preferential treatment. It’s time for Sgt. Tepper to experience a little discomfort and inconvenience: it’s time for the law to remove him from his plush desk job and give him the treatment they’d give you or me had we been accused of shooting someone in the street.