May 17, 2021
A former Philadelphia police officer who was filmed pepper-praying protesters on Interstate 676 during last year's civil unrest had all charges against him dismissed in court Monday. That prompted an emboldened response from District Attorney Larry Krasner to keep the case alive.
Richard Paul Nicoletti, 36, a former SWAT officer, was part of the city's controversial response to the June 1 protest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Widely-circulated video footage showed Nicoletti pulling down the face covering of at least one protester and deploying pepper spray – known in law enforcement as oleoresin capsicum spray, or OC – directly in several people's faces after the crowd had largely dispersed from the highway.
The Philadelphia Police Department had deployed tear gas on the crowd, sending most of the protesters scrambling up an embankment for safety. Pennsylvania State Police also were part of the response that day.
Nicoletti was fired after an internal affairs investigation and the case was referred to Krasner, whose office charged the former officer with simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, official oppression and possessing an instrument of crime. Nicoletti turned himself in to face the charges at the time.
Krasner's office had requested a trial by jury earlier this month. But Municipal Court Judge William Austin Meehan dismissed those charges Monday.
"I fully intend to vigorously pursue charges in this matter," Krasner said. "The people want and deserve justice and change, including police accountability, even though some institutional players are in denial. We will stay the course."
Meehan ruled that Nicoletti had not committed a crime, saying he was authorized by his commanders to remove protesters from the interstate and equipped with pepper spray, the Inquirer reported.
"You may not like their methods, that doesn't criminalize their methods," Meehan said.
In the video of the incident, four protesters who remained on the highway were approached by Nicoletti, who pulled down one seated woman's goggles and pepper-sprayed her eyes. Two others seated on the highway were pepper-sprayed as well, while a fourth protester standing with his hands up was left alone.
After the I-676 protest, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney apologized for the department's "unjustifiable" use of force and placed a moratorium on tear gas and other less-than-lethal munitions.
An independent analysis of the police response to the protests found that Philadelphia was "simply not prepared" for the George Floyd protests and criticized the "generally hostile demeanor" of law enforcement.
Philadelphia Police are facing two lawsuits in connection with the protests. They focus on the use of force on I-676 and in West Philadelphia.
Krasner's vow to continue pursuing charges comes a day before Philadelphia's Democratic primary for district attorney, a race in which Krasner's record of reform is being challenged by former prosecutor Carlos Vega.
In February, Krasner's office refiled charges against Joseph Bologna, another fired police officer who had been charged with striking a Temple University student on the head with his baton during a separate demonstration.
Last month, a jury in Minnesota found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of all three charges against him, including two counts of murder, for killing Floyd last year by kneeling on Floyd's neck while he was in police custody.