Philadelphia officer charged with pepper-spraying kneeling protesters
PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia district attorney announced criminal charges Wednesday against a police officer seen on video lowering the masks of protesters to douse them with pepper spray as they knelt on a city interstate during a protest.
Charges were filed against Philadelphia SWAT Officer Richard Paul Nicoletti, including simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and official oppression.
A video of Nicoletti dressed in riot gear approaching three protesters kneeling on Interstate 676 on June 1, pulling down at least one protester's mask or goggles, then pepper-spraying them was circulated widely on social media and has been included in several news stories about the national police response to demonstrators.
"The complaint alleges that Officer Nicoletti broke the laws he was sworn to uphold and that his actions interfered with Philadelphians' and Americans' peaceful exercise of their sacred constitutional rights of free speech and assembly," District Attorney Larry Krasner wrote in an emailed news release. "The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office will not make excuses for crimes committed by law enforcement that demean the democratic freedoms so many Americans have fought and died to preserve."
Nicoletti's attorney, Fortunato Perri Jr. said the officer, who is a combat veteran, was following orders to clear the highway.
"Richard Nicoletti is being charged with crimes for simply following orders. His unit was ordered by commanders to clear the highway with the approved use of tear gas and pepper spray," Perri said. "The city's leadership was given the opportunity to apologize for approving the orders and use of force but Nicoletti finds himself fired and charged with crimes."
Krasner said Nicoletti was aware the charges were coming and that he had arranged to turn himself in early Wednesday. Nicoletti was released on his own recognizance without bail.
Krasner called statements that Nicoletti was following orders or that his actions were needed to clear protesters from the highway weak justifications for the actions seen in the multiple videos and still photographs the office reviewed before filing charges.
Just before 5 p.m. on June 1, protesters had climbed onto the section of center city interstate, shutting down traffic during a demonstration over police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Video of officers launching tear gas, smoke and other projectiles at protesters clambering to get over a steep embankment and fence to get off the highway during the same encounter also have been widely circulated.
Krasner said his office interviewed the protesters as well as other witnesses to the encounter between Nicoletti and three protesters who were doused with the irritant. He noted a protester had thrown back a tear gas canister to get it away from the kneeling protesters and that it had not hit or injured any officers.
Krasner also alleged that the video showed that Nicoletti "reached down, grabbed and violently threw the protester onto his back, continually spraying him" with pepper spray. He said the three protesters who were sprayed at close range were left to find their way off the highway and were not offered medical attention.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw suspended Nicoletti with the intent to fire him last month after reviewing the video, and referred the investigation to the district attorney's office to decide whether criminal charges were merited. During a news conference, both Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney said the actions were unacceptable.
Outlaw said she was "disgusted" after watching some of the videos. Both she and Kenney apologized for the use of tear gas on the highway.
Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby said the Philadelphia police union would help Nicoletti with his defense. The union has had a confrontational relationship with Krasner's office, and McNesby criticized the district attorney in a statement released Wednesday.
"Once again DA Larry Krasner is only charging Philadelphia police officers following the recent unrest in the city," he wrote, saying Krasner "had an anti-police agenda."
In June, Krasner filed aggravated assault charges against Philadelphia police officer Joseph Bologna, who was seen on video hitting a protester in the head with a metal baton in a separate incident.