Accountability needed in Morris case

There are too many troubling questions relating to the unsolved homicide of Nizah Morris for Philadelphia police to continue stonewalling rather than responding to legitimate questions. As much as they might like the case to go away, it won’t. The Morris case is a challenge to our conscience.

This week’s news story by reporter Tim Cwiek raises the unsettling prospect that Officer Elizabeth Skala was in the presence of Morris when she suffered a fatal head injury.

According to a 911 transmission, Skala was dispatched to investigate Morris for possible drug possession at 3:10 a.m. Dec. 22, 2002. Rather than conducting an investigation, Skala decided to give Morris a three-block Center City courtesy ride. At 3:25, a passing motorist called 911, reporting that Morris was lying unconscious at 16th and Walnut streets with a bleeding head wound.  All of that happened within a mere 15 minutes.

In her public testimony to the Police Advisory Commission back in 2006, Skala confirmed a 16-minute estimate for the length of time she was with Morris. Officer Skala’s estimate is startling because it places her squarely with Morris when she suffered the injury that ultimately ended her life. Do the math.

Other concerns also plague the case, including a suspicious notation in the the patrol log of Officer Kenneth Novak — who also responded to Morris but was never publicly questioned about the incident — and a computer-aided dispatch record that indicates an initial 911 call for Morris was placed on hold, preempted by another incident and ultimately dismissed as unfounded. Police refuse to comment about these issues.

During a recent news conference on a separate issue involving alleged racism within the police department, Commissioner Richard Ross said officers should be held accountable for their actions. “I think we do have a higher standard that we have to live up to,” Ross said. “And so when people want to hold us to a higher standard, I think they’re right to do so — particularly in the case with law enforcement, where we have the ability to deprive people of their liberty.”

We urge Commissioner Ross to be true to his words and apply that same standard to the Nizah Morris case. The many friends, advocates and family members of Nizah Morris deserve no less.