CCTV:WHEN AGNES LAWLESS and three friends were inside a Lukoil convenience store in the Northeast at 3 a.m. last August, they'd all but forgotten the fender-bender in which they'd been involved moments earlier.
There was little damage, and the other driver had left the scene, near Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
What they didn't know was that they'd been rear-ended by the son of a police officer who was on duty, and dad was about to get involved.
Lawless was standing at the counter of the store, at Comly Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, smiling and chatting with the clerk, when she was grabbed from behind and violently pushed back with a police officer's gun in her face.
"He hit me with his left hand, and he had his gun in his right hand," Lawless said. "He pushed his gun into the left side of my neck. It caused a scrape-type bruise on my neck."
After a chaotic struggle, Lawless was arrested and charged with assaulting the officer.
Lawless and her three friends, all in their early 20s, filed complaints with the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. But in cases in which it's a defendant's word against a police officer's, the benefit of doubt often falls to the cop.
Except when there's video.
Once surveillance video from the store's four security cameras was released, the case against Lawless collapsed, and disciplinary action commenced against the officer, Alberto Lopez Sr. A lawsuit against the city is likely.
The incident provides a vivid example of how the countless video recordings generated today by security cameras and cell phones are affecting police work.
Drexel Law School professor Donald Tibbs said that video recordings are capturing more criminal activity and assisting prosecutions, but they're also monitoring police conduct.
"Police are now aware they're more accountable for their actions, because these tapes may be used against them in misconduct cases or civil-rights lawsuits," Tibbs said.
And Tibbs said that there are numerous cases of police seeking to confiscate and destroy tapes that may have captured a police action.
Internal Affairs probe
The clerk on duty the night that Lopez confronted Lawless told investigators that three times after the incident, police officers spoke with him about the security tape and that two asked if he would erase it.
An Internal Affairs investigation found no misconduct among officers who spoke with the clerk about the tape. But it concluded that Lopez had verbally abused Lawless, had jammed his gun into her face and had violated departmental procedures that night.
A hearing to determine what discipline, if any, will be imposed on Lopez is still pending.
Lopez's attorney, Gerald Stanshine, declined to comment and said that Lopez couldn't discuss the incident. Lopez's son, Alberto Lopez Jr., didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
Although some details of what happened are in dispute, it's clear that the Lukoil encounter occurred a few minutes after the blue Mazda in which Lawless was riding was rear-ended at Decatur and Comly roads by a Buick Century driven at slow speed by Lopez Jr.
Lopez Jr. left the scene and drove to the Eighth District police station, at Academy and Red Lion roads, to report the incident to his father. Officer Lopez and his son then left in his patrol car and soon saw the blue Mazda in the Lukoil parking lot.
Officer Lopez entered the store with his son and got into a physical confrontation with Lawless. Lawless ended up in cuffs, charged with assaulting Lopez.
At a preliminary hearing four days later, Officer Lopez testified that he'd come into the store and ordered Lawless and the three young men with her to the floor, and that "she freaked out, started punching, slapping and kicking me multiple times."
Based on the officer's testimony, Judge Robert Blasi ordered that the case proceed to trial.
But four days later, investigators from Internal Affairs got the store's surveillance video of the incident, and things changed quickly.
Lopez was assigned to desk duty and his weapon was removed. He failed to show up at three trial dates for Lawless' assault charges, which then were dropped. Images from four security cameras at the store reveal an encounter consistent with the accounts of Lawless, her three friends and Carlos "Tito" Ruiz, the clerk on duty at the time.
There is no audio, and the video is not continuous, capturing images at intervals ranging from three per second to one every few seconds.
The images show that when Officer Lopez entered the store, Lawless was at the counter, smiling and apparently unaware of his presence behind her.
Lopez grabbed Lawless' neck from behind with his left hand, with his gun in his right hand. Lawless broke free and faced him.
"I was really confused," Lawless said in an interview. "I didn't know if we were getting robbed. I remember seeing his uniform on his arm, he swung me around and hit me with his arm. He hit me first with an open hand, then he hit me with his gun in the face."
The video shows Lopez's left arm extending toward Lawless' face, and then his right arm driving forcefully toward her, jamming the gun in her neck or jaw.
Lawless broke free again, and for several seconds the video shows the three young men sitting on the floor, while arguing occurs among all four and Officer Lopez and his son.
"I had noticed his son as the guy who had hit us," Lawless said, "and [Officer Lopez] was screaming, 'You think you can hit my son and get away with it, you think you can f--- with me?' "
The store clerk reported hearing similar comments from Officer Lopez.
Lawless said that she and her friends were yelling back that it was Lopez Jr. who had hit their car and left.
Tags: lawsuit filed against police officer, his son and the department, Philadelphia
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States (load item map)
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