The Philadelphia Intelligencer - January 18, 2012
What the heck’s been going on in the Bristol Borough Police Department? If the allegations raised in a lawsuit filed by Officer Ritchie Webb are factual, the guy is a modern-day Serpico whose refusal to lie on a fellow officer’s behalf earned him years of harassment and threats. And not just from his colleagues and superiors. In a federal civil lawsuit, Webb named in addition to police officials, the mayor, the council president and a borough attorney. He claims to have been harassed both on and off the job for years as a result of his investigation into allegations that a fellow officer engaged in a sexual encounter with a woman after responding to domestic dispute call. The officer resigned and eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of “official oppression” — using his badge for sex. The woman is suing the borough for $2 million, and Webb was called to testify. Webb claims that within weeks after the incident he was threatened with termination if he spoke about what he knew, that in the ensuing months he was subjected to “retaliation and humiliation” and, most troubling, that when he responded to a call requiring backup, none came. Webb said he had to call neighboring police for help. Wow! Bristol might be a tiny town and its police department a small one, but Webb’s charges are a big deal. Their seriousness cannot be dismissed as just small-town politics, which borough matters too often are. Fortunately, council President Ralph DiGuiseppe Jr., who was named in Webb’s suit, has asked District Attorney Dave Heckler to investigate the allegations. We urge the DA to accept the invitation — without delay. Unfortunately, Heckler didn’t sound enthusiastic. “I am not aware of what exactly he is looking for,” Heckler said of DiGuiseppe’s request, noting that an earlier grand jury probe of Bristol police “did not yield any prosecution.” We’re not sure what the confusion is. Seems pretty clear to us that DiGuiseppe wants the cloud under which borough and police officials must now function lifted. Apparently, DiGuiseppe believes that once revealed, the facts will clear officials of any wrongdoing. Borough residents surely must hope that will be the case. Problem is, right now they just don’t know. Webb’s charges naturally raise suspicion about the folks running the town, including the police department. With their ethics and honesty in question, officials’ moral authority is compromised and their ability to lead eroded. It’s an awful position to be in. And that’s not to mention the personal toll the situation must be taking as reputations are on the line. Again, we implore the district attorney to clear the air. People need to know if Officer Ritchie Webb is a local version of New York City policeman Frank Serpico, who famously went undercover to expose police corruption and was the subject of threats and intimidation and later a hit movie. Or if this whole mess is just small-town politics gone hugely awry.