Police commish: Supervisor’s approval was necessary for Morris courtesy ride

Nizah Morris


Officer Elizabeth Skala was required to obtain approval from a supervisor before giving Nizah Morris a Center City “courtesy ride,” Police Commissioner Richard Ross recently informed the city’s Police Advisory Commission. But whether Skala received such approval remains unclear 16 years after the ride took place.

In a May 14 letter to the PAC, released July 12 after PGN filed a Right-to-Know Law request for a copy of it, Ross said all courtesy rides given by police require prior authorization from a supervisor. He said the rule was in effect in 2002, when the Morris ride took place. It’s the first time a police official has publicly acknowledged that Skala was required to obtain her supervisor’s approval for the ride.

Skala told PAC investigators she didn’t need her supervisor’s approval because the ride she gave Morris only spanned a few blocks — from the area of 13th and Walnut to 16th and Walnut.

But in his PAC letter, Ross indicated the length of a courtesy ride is immaterial. “Officers do not have independent authority to place any individual in a police vehicle,” Ross wrote. “Prior authorization by a supervisor would have been required at the time of the [Morris] incident and this restriction has remained in the disciplinary code to this date.”

Ross’ letter doesn’t specifically address whether or not Skala obtained permission from her supervisor for the ride.

Skala’s supervisor at the time of the Morris ride was Sgt. Michael Dougherty. He wasn’t interviewed by the PAC nor did he testify during public hearings in 2006.

The issue of whether Skala received Dougherty’s approval for the ride also wasn’t pursued by the Internal Affairs Division, which investigated the matter in 2003-5.  The 49-page IAD report doesn’t address Dougherty’s role regarding the courtesy ride. The issue of Skala’s discipline, if any, also wasn’t addressed in the IAD report.

But in 2003, Dougherty was interviewed by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. His interview is among dozens of records sought by trans attorney Julie Chovanes in a pending Right-to-Know Law request. Dougherty’s interview could shed light on whether he gave approval for the Morris ride.

According to the PAC’s 2013 Morris report, Dougherty’s interview states that he granted permission for the ride via a cellphone call with Skala. But it remains unclear when the putative permission occurred, whether Skala told Dougherty that she wanted to cancel paramedics and what Skala told Dougherty about Morris’ condition.

“P/O Skala has been questioned five times about the Nizah Morris courtesy ride,” the PAC report states. “She has consistently denied asking for permission for the ride because it was unnecessary for her to do so.  P/O Skala never mentioned calling Sgt. Dougherty on her cell.  Sgt. Dougherty was questioned on Sept. 5, 2003 and plainly stated that P/O Skala called him on her cell phone and asked permission, which he granted.  At this late date, the commission cannot determine whose testimony to believe.” 

Neither Skala nor Dougherty could be reached for comment.

The Philadelphia Police Department said, “Unfortunately we will not be able to accommodate your request however, you can contact the D.A.’s Office for further information.”

Ross sent the May 14 PAC letter because the PAC continued to monitor the outcome of its 10-year review of the Morris incident. 

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.