Philadelphia police this week declined to explain questionable paperwork in the Nizah Morris homicide that officers involved in a courtesy ride given to Morris shortly before she was found with a fatal head wound submitted to their supervisors.
One of the documents contains a patrol-log entry that wasn’t included in a 46-page Police Internal Affairs investigative file on the Morris incident that was released to the public last month. But a PGN reporter located the missing pages in his own files, accumulated over the past 15 years covering this case.
Of particular concern to Morris advocates is a patrol-activity log entry written by Officer Kenneth Novak, one of three officers dispatched to investigate Morris on the morning of her fatal head injury in December 2002. The trans woman of color had been drinking at what was the Key West Bar, at Juniper and Chancellor streets. She needed medical attention due to her level of inebriation. But after arriving at the scene, Officer Elizabeth Skala canceled a call for medics and reportedly transported Morris three blocks to 15th and Walnut streets, where the officer said she thought Morris lived. Novak’s exact movements during this time remain unclear.
According to 911 records, the ride began at 3:13 a.m Dec. 22. At 3:25 a.m., a passerby called 911 to report a woman on the ground at 16th and Walnut, bleeding from a head wound. At 3:30 a.m., another officer, Thomas Berry, arrived at the post-injury scene, 911 records indicate. Medics transported Morris, who was still alive, to Jefferson University Hospital. She died 64 hours later from the effects of blunt-force trauma to the head.
All three officers involved were summoned to Jefferson a few hours after the courtesy ride because Morris’ attending physician believed she was a crime victim. Advocates for Morris have long been concerned that Skala, Novak and Berry colluded to falsify paperwork at Jefferson in order to avoid documenting that the ride happened.
Skala and Novak were based in the Sixth District, which covers Center City east of Broad Street. Berry was based in the Ninth District, which covers Center City west of Broad Street, which means supervisors in each district would typically only see documentation provided by the officers under their purview.
Berry believed he was in charge of the investigation and took the lead by writing a report about the Morris incident. At the hospital, Berry concluded that Morris was a slip-and-fall victim though it remains unclear why and wrote a report documenting Morris as a “hospital case,” police vernacular for someone who requires a hospital visit but isn’t necessarily a crime victim. Berry’s report in conjunction with his patrol log designate the Morris incident as beginning at 3:25 a.m. — when Berry documented he first spotted Morris exiting Skala’s vehicle, which had crossed into the Ninth District on the 1400 block of Walnut Street. Berry circled Rittenhouse Square, and returned at 3:35 a.m., when he saw Morris at 16th and Walnut streets, also in Berry’s patrol sector. Berry’s report and log were submitted to his Ninth-District supervisor.
Novak didn’t write a stand-alone police report, but he and Skala wrote entries in their respective patrol logs designating the Morris incident as beginning at 3:10 a.m. — when they were initially dispatched to investigate her at Key West in the Sixth District. Novak wrote in his log that he spent five minutes on a “hospital case,” from 3:10-3:15 a.m. Skala wrote that she spent 16 minutes on a hospital case, from 3:10-3:26 a.m.
A later log entry written by Novak documents the hospital case as originating in the Ninth District, and codes it as such. So what the Sixth-District supervisor saw in Skala and Novak’s logs was that a bystander first called 911 on behalf of Morris, who was at that moment in the Sixth District, but wasn’t spotted by police until she was in the Ninth District — which isn’t true. Morris was picked up by police at Key West — in the Sixth District.
In the log entry, Novak closed the case with the notation “Further,” police parlance indicating that he followed up on the incident. For that log entry, Novak wrote a district-control number (an internal police tracking number) for the incident that’s based in the Ninth District, thus erasing the origin of the incident in the Sixth District where Morris was first picked up.
Perhaps more importantly, what emerges from the available documentation submitted by all three officers to their respective supervisors is a failure to mention that the courtesy ride even happened.
As a result, all of the paperwork the three officers produced depicted Morris simply as a hospital case. But during the period from 3:13-3:25 a.m., Morris was in a police vehicle, not in an ambulance being taken to the hospital, as a hospital case would require. Advocates for Morris are asking: Why cover up the courtesy ride? It was only 12 minutes after Morris entered Skala’s vehicle that she was found bleeding from the head on the street, according to 911 records.
The time the three officers say the Morris incident began is also critical. Berry’s report and patrol-log entry designating 3:25 a.m. as the incident’s starting point whitewash the fact that it actually began at 3:10 a.m., when Novak and Skala, patrolling the areas in separate cars in the Sixth District, were dispatched to Key West. Skala, arriving first, gave the courtesy ride at 3:13 a.m. The courtesy ride presents an obstacle in the three officers’ documented accounts of Morris as a hospital case only. If she were a hospital case from the start of the incident, she would have been picked up by medics and transported to a hospital rather than getting in a police vehicle.
Novak’s log entry raises another concern. On the surface, it ostensibly confirms that Novak realized Berry was going to write a report. Novak’s log entry appears in unclear handwriting to state: “Report previously taken.” If Novak in fact wrote “report,” then he would have been aware that Berry was writing a report and was in charge of the investigation. But in that scenario, Novak couldn’t justify the 3:10 starting time for the hospital case documented in his patrol log, because it would conflict with Berry’s 3:25 starting time.
However, if Novak had written, “Respondent previously taken,” meaning taken to a hospital, Novak could have subsequently explained to investigators that he believed he was in charge of the investigation, that he didn’t know about Berry’s 3:25 a.m. starting time for the “hospital case,” and that he and Skala rightfully designated the starting time as 3:10 a.m. PGN includes the log entry as a graphic to demonstrate the ambiguity in the notation.
Police referred questions about Novak’s log entry to a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, who had no comment as of presstime. Novak couldn’t be reached for comment.
To date, no records have been released indicating that investigators ever questioned Novak about his log entry. Advocates for Morris continue to push for the release of all records relating to the case at the D.A.’s Office. In April, trans attorney Julie Chovanes filed a state Right-to-Know Law request for those records. As of presstime, Chovanes’ request remained pending.