39th District corruption scandal

The 39th District Corruption Scandal refers to a persistent pattern of brutality and corruption among a cadre of Philadelphia Police Department officers, primarily from the Department's 39th District. The scandal emerged in late 1995 and received nationwide attention by 1997, eventually resulting in an investigation by Human Rights Watch. Hundreds of people were involved in the incidents that occurred in North Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Some individuals are notable due to their direct participation, and others for their participation in related events, particularly the legal proceedings of the conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal for the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner.

Police misconduct and civil rights violationsEdit

The core of the scandal involved actions by a group of Philadelphia police officers, some of whom were known to North Philadelphia as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These officers were charged with investigating suspected crack houses and drug distribution hubs. The officers conducted "raids" which were often unreported. In some of these locations the officers were also known for stealing from suspects and were described by one of the prosecuting judges as "squash[ing] the Bill of Rights into the mud.".[1]

Three of the involved officers were dismissed from the department in 1991 for searching a known drug dealer's suburban apartment without a warrant. This dismissal was based on information provided by Pamela Jenkins, a prostitute and drug user who was the longtime girlfriend and informant of Officer Thomas Ryan. One of the dismissed officers, Sergeant Thomas Degovanni, was reinstated a year later, while another officer, John Baird, was in arbitration for reinstatement. The third dismissed officer, Thomas Ryan, was awarded a full disability pension by the city board of pensions.

The investigation into the illegal search was ultimately turned over to the FBI by the Philadelphia Police Department Internal Affairs Bureau at the direction of Police Commissioner Willie Williams, in the wake of the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department. Many high-ranking command officers saw this as a political move on the part of Commissioner Williams, who then actively campaigned for the position of Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.[citation needed]

The FBI carried the investigation as a low priority, assigning it to a rookie agent, James Williamson, as the first criminal investigation he headed. Williamson's investigation was stalled with no reliable witnesses or evidence to indict the 39th District, 5 Squad officers until Philadelphia Police Detective, James Dambach, was detailed to the FBI to assist Agent Williamson. By the summer of 1994 they had acquired enough circumstantial evidence of civil rights violations to approach former officer Thomas Ryan.

Ryan agreed to cooperate and turned over his informant and lover Pamela Jenkins to Detective Dambach and Agent Williamson. Ryan and Jenkins both agreed to wear body wires and to record their conversations with former officer Baird. In December 1994, Detective Dambach and Agent Williamson confronted Baird with the recordings made by Ryan and Jenkins. Baird, facing a long prison sentence if convicted, agreed to cooperate but was eventually charged and pled guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to a federal agent in a failed attempt to steer the investigation away from specific police officers who the Feds had targeted for indictment.

The federal investigation of the Philadelphia Police eventually expanded into the elite Highway Patrol Unit when Officer James Ryan (unrelated to Thomas Ryan) agreed to cooperate against the officers in that unit who engaged in the same activities as the officers in the 39th District.

In the wake of the scandal, nearly 1,400 cases were put under review; by 1997, between 160 and 300 had been overturned, leading to the release of more than 100 persons. Beyond the convictions obtained by federal prosecutors, no one in the Philadelphia Police Detective was explicitly punished, other than being transferred to other units within the department, with the exception of Philadelphia Police Detective James Dambach, who upon returning to regular police duties found himself to be a pariah within the ranks. Labelled a "Gink" (Philadelphia police term for rat), Dambach endured the label and eventually attained the rank of lieutenant.

Convicted PPD officersEdit

The following members of the Philadelphia Police Detective's Special Narcotics Unit, also known as The Five Squad, were convicted:

  • Officer John Baird
  • Lt. Frank Dubundo
  • Sergeant Thomas DeGovanni
  • Officer Steven Brown
  • Officer James Ryan
  • Officer Thomas Ryan (police officer) (on leave from the PPD at the time of conviction).
  • Officer Louis J. Maier, convicted on separate charges of robbery and battery.

Other key figuresEdit

  • Ed Rendell, Mayor
  • Lynne Abraham, District Attorney.
  • Pamela Jenkins (informant), paid PPD informant and key government witness.
  • James Dambach, Philadelphia Police detective credited with breaking loose the stalled federal investigation.
  • James Williamson, FBI agent who headed the investigation of the 39th District 5 Squad.


Raymond Carter trialEdit

Raymond Carter achieved notoriety for being the subject of a murder case that arose in the aftermath of the corruption scandal, resulting in his release from prison on December 30, 1996.[2] Key figures in his conviction (and release) were PPD officer Thomas Ryan and Pamela Jenkins, who also played roles in the more famous trial of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Carter, a former heroin dealer, was sentenced in 1988 to life imprisonment for the slaying of Robert "Puppet" Harris, of North Gratz Street, at the Pike Bar in North Philadelphia on September 18, 1986. His conviction was secured largely on the testimony of Pamela Jenkins, who testified that she saw Carter pick up a gun and fire at Harris from a distance of about three feet.

Ten years later, as Ryan's reputation began to unravel after his conviction on a federal corruption charge related to the 39th district scandal, Jenkins came forward and asserted that she had been paid $500 by a group of PPD officers, including Ryan, to testify against Carter. This resulted in Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph I. Papalini throwing out Carter's first-degree murder conviction in late 1996, stating that it was simply impossible to determine whether Carter had killed Harris, and ordering a new trial.

The fact of Jenkins's reversal of testimony in the Raymond Carter case coming to light during the PCRA appellate hearings in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case led to her 1982 testimony being re-evaluated as well. In particular, in 1997, lawyers for Abu-Jamal produced an affidavit by Jenkins stating that Ryan had repeatedly pressured her to provide false testimony against Abu-Jamal, and corroborating the testimony of Cynthia White that she had also been coerced into providing false testimony.


  1. ^ "Intrigue in Philadelphia involves mayor, FBI, listening device and scandal". old.post-gazette.com. Retrieved 2016-12-16.
  2. ^ Mark Fazlollah, "Man to walk in tainted murder case", Philadelphia Inquirer, December 28, 1996