A Philadelphia police SWAT officer turned himself in Wednesday, becoming the second member of law enforcement to be charged in connection with the response to protests following the death of George Floyd.
Officer Richard P. Nicoletti, 35, of the Far Northeast, allegedly shot pepper spray into the faces of several protesters who were sitting on the highway during the now-infamous June 1 incident on I-676, when tear gas was also deployed. The scene was caught on camera, and the video quickly went viral.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw suspended Nicoletti June 26 with the intention of firing him, and prosecutors announced Wednesday that he has been charged with possession of an instrument of a crime and three counts of simple assault, reckless endangerment and official oppression.
All of the charges are misdemeanors, and Nicoletti was released pending court proceedings.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said the victims were “people who were peacefully engaging in sacred Constitutional rights under the First Amendment, rights of free speech, rights of assembly, whose purpose was to make their country a better place, which is what patriots do.”
The Fraternal Order of Police, a union representing officers, quickly rushed to defend Nicoletti and indicated it would fund his legal defense.
“Krasner refuses to hold unlawful protesters accountable, those who set fire and looted our great city,” FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby said in a statement. “His top priority is to push his anti-police agenda.”
“This double-standard of justice is unacceptable to our brave police officers who work tirelessly to keep our city safe,” he added.
McNesby and Krasner have butted heads since the progressive lawyer was elected in 2017, but their conflict seems to have only escalated in recent months.
In early June, Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna was charged with felony assault and other crimes after a video surfaced of him hitting a protester with a baton June 1 on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The decision to arrest Bologna, a 30-year veteran of the department, angered the union’s leadership.
Nicoletti sprayed two protesters who were kneeling on the Vine Street Expressway, in one case, pulling down a woman’s goggles.
It came after a man who was with them tossed a tear gas canister away from the group. The DA’s Office said there is no evidence the canister struck police.
Nicoletti slammed the man down and used pepper spray on him while he was laying on the ground. Prosecutors said he was acting “without provocation.”
“I don’t know why hard-working, decent law-abiding police officers would be opposed to enforcement of the law,” Krasner told reporters Wednesday. “That’s their job.”
The FOP, in its statement, contended that the DA’s Office is focusing on police officers when it should be targeting those who participated in riots.
Krasner said more than 500 people are facing burglary and criminal trespass charges related to looting, adding that the FOP’s leadership has a “complete disinterest in the truth.”
“What they’re really saying is no matter what a police officer does, that police officer should never be charged,” Krasner said. “You’re not above the law.”
Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said Kenney “stands firmly behind the City’s decision to terminate Mr. Nicoletti from the Police Department, because his conduct was intolerable and horrifying, and unquestionably violated police policy and directives.”
Officers’ actions during the protest on I-676 will likely get further scrutiny.
Earlier this week, Kenney’s administration said it had hired a consulting firm and a former federal prosecutor to independently investigate the city’s response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
It’s expected the Vine Street Expressway incident will be one focus of the investigation.
A final written report should be completed and shared with the public before the end of the year, and periodic updates will also be provided, officials said.