A former Philadelphia police officer who was fired after being filmed pepper-spraying protesters as they knelt on an interstate during a Black Lives Matter demonstration last month now faces criminal charges.
Richard Paul Nicoletti, 35, faces six misdemeanour charges of simple assault, reckless endangerment, official oppression, and possession of an instrument of crime, the district attorney’s office announced Wednesday.
The charges follow a June 1 video showing Nicoletti, then assigned to the police department’s SWAT unit, walking up to people kneeling along Interstate 676 and without provocation spraying the three of them in their faces, according to the DA’s office.
“He physically pulled down goggles one of the protesters was wearing for protection, and sprayed her again in the face,” the office said in a statement.
Nicoletti then approached another protester hunched over in a protective position and violently threw the man onto his back before repeatedly spraying him.
Despite all three protesters being left visually impaired, none of them were offered medical treatment, the DA’s office said.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said his office “will not make excuses for crimes committed by law enforcement that demean the democratic freedoms so many Americans have fought and died to preserve.”
Before being elected DA in 2017, Krasner had a long career of prosecuting police misconduct cases.
An attorney for Nicollti, reached by The Philadelphia Inquirer, argued that his client was “being charged with crimes for simply following orders.”
“His unit was ordered by commanders to clear the highway with the approved use of tear gas and pepper spray,” Fortunateo Perri Jr. told the newspaper. “The city’s leadership was given the opportunity to apologise for approving the use of force, but Nicoletti finds himself fired and charged with crimes.”
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw publicly apologised last month for the use of tear gas on protesters, after initially supporting its use.
“I have never believed tear gas was an effective tool,” Kenney said. “When I’ve seen other cities use it in protests, it always seemed to me to make situations worse. And it has.”
A police commander who permitted the spray’s use during the June 1 protest admitted that he did not secure approval by the police commissioner, as instructed, before allowing officers to deploy it. As a result, he accepted a voluntary demotion for his actions.
“Things happened quickly. I didn’t call the commissioner, it was me and me alone,” Deputy Commissioner Dennis Wilson said at a press conference last month.