Feb 6, 2024 - News

Family of slain Philly boy sues, cites rash of shootings of "unarmed" suspects

Photo illustration of a Philadelphia police badge on a plate from the scales of justice.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Department of Justice

Thomas "TJ" Siderio Jr. became the youngest person killed by a Philadelphia police officer when he was shot in 2022. His family now says in a new lawsuit that his death was an "abysmal systemic policy failure."

What's happening: The lawsuit, filed last month in state court before the city requested removal to federal court, blames the police department's "inadequate" training practices for escalating encounters, resulting in too many unarmed suspects being shot.

  • The family tapped Kristen Behrens to act as the lead attorney for their son's estate in the lawsuit, which names the city and former police officer Edsaul Mendoza as defendants.
  • The civil suit includes allegations of excessive force, municipal liability, assault and battery with the family seeking unspecified damages.

Catch up quick: Prosecutors believe Siderio, 12, was armed with a gun and likely fired a shot at an undercover police vehicle carrying Mendoza and three of his colleagues.

  • But Mendoza was charged with murder in May 2022 because prosecutors said Siderio had ditched the gun and no longer posed a threat when the officer fired his third and final shot while the boy was on the ground, per the grand jury presentment.
  • The bullet struck Siderio in the back and exited his chest.
  • Mendoza's criminal trial is set for May, per court records.

What they're saying: Siderio's attorneys didn't respond to Axios' requests for comment. In the complaint, they called it an "execution-style" killing and said deadly force has become an all too "common practice" among Philly police officers, blaming lax training and oversight.

The other side: The city declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Mendoza's attorney didn't respond to a request for comment.

The big picture: Philadelphia once had one of the nation's highest rates of police shootings.

  • The Department of Justice issued a "scathing" report that found police officers shot 59 unarmed suspects between 2007 and 2014, per the lawsuit.
  • Many officers wrongly assumed suspects were "reaching for a weapon, and most often, were holding onto an object such as a cell phone."

By the numbers: Between 2007 and 2014, police were involved in 394 shootings, an average of 49 a year, and a rate of nearly one a week. Those shootings involved 454 officers, per the lawsuit.

  • More than 900 claims were filed against police between 2016 and 2022, resulting in at least $116 million in misconduct payouts.

Zoom out: The city's police watchdog said during its Dec. 21, 2023, meeting that officers were involved in 15 shootings last year. At least a third of those ended with suspects being killed or wounded, per available police data.

  • The department averaged nearly 15 police shootings a year between 2015-2023, a sharp decline from the period examined by the DOJ, per police data. Suspects were killed or wounded about 60% of the time, per Axios' analysis of available data.

On March 1, 2022, Siderio and a friend were riding their bicycles near 18th and Barbara streets, per the grand jury presentation.

  • Mendoza was with three officers assigned to the South Task Force — Kwaku Sarpong, Robert Cucinelli and Alexander Camacho — inside a parked Chevrolet Cruze with tinted windows when they noticed the two.
  • The officers were patrolling the area searching for another man who was the target of an investigation into stolen firearms. They recognized the 17-year-old who was with Siderio as the target's acquaintance and decided to stop the boys.
  • Prosecutors noted that a police directive said uniformed officers should've conducted the stop rather than undercover officers in plainclothes to avoid confusion and possible escalation.

Of note: The officers were part of an undercover unit that was disbanded in 2022. The unit had a reputation for using heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of suspected violent criminals and illegal guns, per the lawsuit.

  • Community members referred to them as "cowboys" and a "jump-out squad."
  • Some of the officers in the unit had been charged with crimes, involved in a prior police shooting, or accused of "physical abuse and fabrication," per the lawsuit.

As Sarpong went to turn on the lights to initiate the stop, a bullet struck the back window, sending shards of glass into Camacho's eyes. The officers exited the vehicle, and Mendoza and Sarpong returned fire at the teenager, per the grand jury presentation.

  • Mendoza chased Siderio down the block, firing twice more, the last time when he was a half car length away, prosecutors said.
  • The boy, who was struck in the back, had tossed his gun down at that point and fallen to the ground behind a pickup truck.

Prosecutors believe that Mendoza knew that Siderio was unarmed when he fired the last time, citing video showing an exchange between Camacho and Mendoza shortly after the chase was over.

  • Mendoza replied when asked the location of the gun: Siderio "threw it around there," pointing toward a white van parked on Barbara Street.
  • The gun was found about 40 feet from where Siderio was killed, near the van and a curb.
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