This Philly cop takes each homicide personally.
On any given night in Philadelphia when gunshots ring out, the corner boys break sudden and fast like billiard balls, dropping out of sight. Chances are they’ve left a body behind, bleeding to death on the streets of what the next morning’s papers will refer to as a “drug infested” neighborhood.
Minutes, sometimes hours after the victim dies, a call comes in to the Homicide Unit on the second floor of the Philadelphia Police Headquarters, better known as the Roundhouse (from above, the building is shaped like handcuffs), at Eighth and Arch streets.
When a job comes in, a well-honed machine whirs to life: One team of detectives dashes to the scene, another heads to the hospital. The body is identified and the family notified in person—often just a formality, since neighborhood residents usually know who was murdered before police do.
From then on, who the victim was when alive is reduced to statistics—age, race, sex—and the body now evidence of its own demise. It’ll be cut open and analyzed for clues. In a shooting, hands will be bagged and checked for DNA and gun powder.
Detectives need to stay focused on the facts and the clues, and not get overwhelmed by the grief of it all. They leave that part to Officer Kathryn Battle.
Back at the office, Battle works an angle of the case that won’t be covered in the next day’s news. While detectives chase hot leads, it’s Battle’s job to deliver condolences and cold comfort to the murder victim’s family.
Within 48 hours, though usually the next morning, Battle makes calls to the bereaved. Over the next few days and sometimes, years, she will be the face of the PPD to the family, acting as an adviser, counselor, companion and advocate, depending on the situation. But first she has to make the dreaded call.
After offering formal condolences on behalf of the Homicide Unit, Battle gets to the point. “As the victims’ assistance officer, it’s is my duty to let you know about crime victims’ compensation in case you don’t have insurance to bury your loved one.”
She’s referring to the $6,500, up from $5,000 last year, that Pennsylvania’s Victims Compensation Assistance Program provides to the families of homicide victims who lack sufficient insurance to defray funeral and burial costs. Funds are contingent on evidence that the victim didn’t play a role in his or her murder—no drugs or weapon on the body at the time of death.
But completing victim’s comp paperwork is about the only straightforward aspect of Battle’s job. From there on out, she is that family’s advocate. First, she patiently gives them a practical crash course in what to do after a family member is murdered. After that, contact can be as simple as providing a quick update on the investigation or as devastating as accompanying a mother as she identifies the body and explaining why her son’s hands are bagged.
“Or you may have a mother come in and we’ve already covered him in a sheet,” says Battle. “And you have to explain to that family member why they can’t get that last hug.”
After the detectives notify the family, they refer them to Battle because inevitably they all ask, “Oh God, what do I do now?”
It’s a recent Tuesday morning and Battle is at her desk. Compared to the day before, it’s relatively calm in the office. Three people were murdered that weekend in the city, which makes for piles of paperwork and phone calls on Monday.
Anyone who has been inside the Roundhouse will tell you the place is downright decrepit. There are good reasons the PPD is moving to the old Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company building at 46th and Market next year despite the cost in a grim economy. Cracked walls seem held up by columns of cardboard boxes stacked six high. Beige metal filing cabinets mark makeshift office spaces.
Battle works in a tight area carved out by the line squad, the fugitive squad and special investigations, where cold cases are rekindled. Her desk looks like a thrift-store cast-off, a bulky wood behemoth full of chips and scrapes. She still uses floppy disks. In the top drawer she keeps a can of Static Guard, her secret weapon against ticks, ants and other creepy-crawlies that like to come out especially when bags of evidence line the floor. Her space is wallpapered with upbeat aphorisms and Bible passages about death and grief.
“I keep positive thinking all around me because unfortunately, by the time they come to me, it’s death,” she says.
There have been 124 homicides so far this year (up to June 6), a pace 4 percent higher than last year, which closed out with 305 homicides. Since taking the job in 2003, Battle has processed at least 1,500 victim’s compensation applications and insurance claims.
For someone who deals in death all day, 55-year-old Battle laughs a lot. Born and raised in Philly—John Bartram High in Southwest Philly, class of ’72—Battle claims Southern values by way of her family’s roots in North Carolina, reflected in the way she punctuates easy-flowing conversation with formal courtesies and old-school etiquette. Like the way she refers to a corpse as “this young man.”
The phone rings. “Good morning, Homicide!” she says cheerfully. It’s a funeral director—already familiar with how victim’s comp works—calling from a particularly murderous neighborhood. There’s been a murder and the family doesn’t have the money to cover the funeral expenses. Often, funeral directors will front the cost if they’re relatively certain the family will receive a reimbursement check from the state (in about six to eight weeks). Knowing the rules—no drugs, no guns—they read the newspaper accounts of a murder and then try to work over Battle and get her guarantee the state will approve the application.
But Battle always plays it by the book.
“There’s no guns or drugs. And it’s based on the conduct of the victim,” she repeats. Then she erupts into good-natured laughter. “You’re saying that, you’re not going to get Officer Battle to say that!”
The funeral director, who Battle will keep calling ‘darling’, argues that fronting the cost is a risk. “Well, living every day in this city is,” responds Battle.
Because homicide victims are most often young (black) men, most of Battle’s interactions are with grieving mothers or, less frequently, wives. Battle spreads her infectious charisma into the corners of a dark situation, calling to check in and sharing tea with the bereaved in their living rooms.
The phone rings again. The time it’s the mother of a man who just died after two weeks on life support. Somewhere in the system, an aggravated assault charge was upgraded to homicide and Battle’s ever-expanding client pool just got one soul deeper.
The woman on the phone is scared to identify her son’s body and go to the funeral parlor. Sometimes, Battle accompanies the mothers herself if they don’t have anyone else.
Battle advises the mother not to make funeral arrangements alone. “You're going to think with your heart, not your head,” she says. “They’re going to show you the very best, but we only give you $6,500. And you have to live afterward … Have the funeral director give me a call.” She hangs up, lets out a big sigh and slaps her thighs. “She’s crying and she wants to do everything all by herself.”
To communities routinely battered by homicide, Battle represents a kinder, more compassionate face of the PPD. And a necessary one—bad blood’s been coursing between residents of crime-riddled neighborhoods and the police charged with both protecting and regulating them for decades.
On one hand, the PPD’s reputation is tarnished with reports of racism and corruption. Just last month a white cop, Sgt. Robert Ralston, shot himself in Overbrook and blamed a fictitious black man with “cornrows.” The same week, Officer William Thrasher was re-instated after being fired last year for calling the citizens in the 22nd District “animals” doing “typical nigger shit” in front of a student journalist. And the Philadelphia Daily News’ Pulitzer-winning expose of crooked cops in Narcotics looms large in the minds of citizens.
Battle says she’s routinely confronted by angry families who say the police don’t care enough to solve murders in their ’hood.
“I hear it from families,” says Battle. “’Why is it that when a cop is killed, y’all solve it so fast? My son was killed and no one’s doing nothing!’”
“I have to explain to them as tactfully as I can that when an officer is killed, other agencies step in. State police, FBI, DEA.” Battle says more witnesses than usual come forward when a cop is killed.
On the other hand, her colleagues say they are frustrated that homicide investigations are routinely hamstrung by the ‘no-snitch’ code, rampant in the same communities who say they want crimes solved.
“There’s hostility toward police as a whole because they feel that if we were doing our job, it wouldn’t have happened. But we can’t have a cop on every corner,” says Battle. “And if we did, [criminals] would go inside.”
It’s impossible to hang out in the Homicide Unit of the Roundhouse for long without ‘no-snitch’ coming up. Since the holy trinity for solving crimes is DNA, evidence and witness testimony, ‘no-snitch’ leads to a lot of unsolved murders and unanswered prayers. It pisses off Battle and other cops working homicide cases.
“Everybody sees something, everybody hears something,” she says. “It’s frustrating for us because we know better. Somebody did see something.”
It’s not easy being the face of the PPD to grieving mothers who often blame the police for their loved one’s death.
“You have to have compassion because you’re going to deal with someone who has been wronged, and will feel as if the police shouldn’t have ever let it happen,” says Battle. “And you have to show compassion.”
Battle is the first to admit she didn’t always have a seemingly bottomless well of the stuff, specifically when it came to drug-war casualties. Though the officer raised two boys of her own, Battle says that for most of her life and her first 18 years or so on the force, she was unmoved by stories of drug dealers and criminals shot to death. “I always thought you live by the street, you die by the street,” she shrugs.
Then she met Victoria Greene, whose son Emir was shot to death in 1997.
At the time, Battle was working narcotics. She recalls her attitude toward the victim and his grieving mother.
“He was killed because he was a drug dealer. And I was like, ‘Oh well,’” says Battle.
The smile drops from Battle’s face and she leans forward. “We treated her horribly. I did. I said, ‘I don’t care. He was a drug dealer, he got what he deserved.’”
After Greene’s son was killed, she founded Every Murder is Real (E.M.I.R.), a support group for parents of slain children. In 2003, shortly after Battle took the new position, Greene invited the officer to an E.M.I.R conference. The two mothers squared off.
Battle held her ground: By breaking the law, Greene’s son played with fire and got burned. Greene lost her son’s life but was determined to win respect for his death. To whatever Battle said, Greene repeatedly replied, “But he was my son.”
Then it clicked for Battle.
“Something inside me went flip-flop-flip-flop,” says Battle. “Regardless of the circumstances, that was still her child.” It was an invaluable lesson. “No matter what, the pain is the same,” she says.
Since then, she’s made it her business to “treat every loved one the way I want to be treated. With dignity and respect.”
It’s hard to believe Battle, chatty as she is, is ever at a loss for words. But she admits that glimpsing the pain of another person, another mother, up close can make her speechless.
“Sometimes you just don’t know what to say,” she says. “I’ll just say God bless, because sometimes less is best.”
While most cops try to keep family and Roundhouse roles separate, for Battle, letting her two lives spill into one another has enriched both.
“Part of this job made me love my children even more,” she says referring to her sons, 32-year-old Jason, an ad rep who lives with his family in New York, and 26-year-old Christopher, who’s in graduate school in Texas. “I think that’s why I strive so hard to make them be successful,” she says. “Not that they can’t be victims, but I just realized how blessed I was … I pray I never get to know any of these mothers’ pain.”
It was life as a working single mother that partly informed the then-31-year-old’s decision to become a cop in the first place. At the time, she was on the brink of divorce and realized, “I had to raise those two boys!” She laughs while explaining why she left a career designing kitchens to join the force.
“When I first started, I really wanted to help people. I really thought that I could change the world. I really believed that. I still believe it,” she says.
She signed up for Police Academy in 1986 when African-American women were being actively recruited. She was part of the second class of 100 black women. After starting out as a uniformed cop in the 17th District, Battle moved to Narcotics.
After a few years in Narcotics, Battle sought out work at the Conflict Prevention and Resolution Unit, which deals with investigating bias crimes. While in CPR, Battle was affected by how she saw victims treated.
“Crime victims didn’t really have anything,” she says. “No one explained anything to you.”
So she took a job as a victim's assistance officer (VAO) in the 12th District. In 2003, then-commissoner Sylvester Johnson created her current position, where she is dedicated only to working with families of homicide victims.
“We were having so many homicides and a lot of families didn’t know what to do, and we hadn’t promoted compensation like we should have,” says Battle. There were 348 homicides in 2003.
“[Johnson] was looking for a holistic approach,” she says.
Battle’s vivacious personality and reputation as a leader and a well-liked cop—she was a runner-up for the George Fencl Award in 2001, given to an officer for honor, compassion, kindness and courage—made her a prime candidate for the new slot.
“I was kind of tapped for it,” she says. “They wanted an experienced victim’s assistance officer.”
It was baptism by gunfire.
One of the first things Battle did after learning all about victim’s compensation was meet with funeral directors from all over the city to teach them about the process. “At one time they didn’t want to work with it because they thought it was just all tedious paperwork,” she says.
Then Battle began cobbling together an education that helps her navigate the sensitive situations that regularly accompany her unusual job. Over the years, she’s taken courses with the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Department of Behavioral Health and Temple University.
“I don’t pretend to be a counselor or anything, I’m not. But I give the facts,” she says. Later on, she admits she’s a bit softer than that. “There’s something within me … I’ll call. ‘How are you doing? How are you feeling?’ Because a lot of our families will not go for counseling, and they need it.”
Battle tucks a family under her wing and hustles them through clumsy bureaucracy that can make a painful situation worse.
“The system is set up where you would be victimized twice. It’s not a victim-friendly system. Justice moves slow,” she says. “We try to make sure there’s a healing part that goes on because a homicide is tremendous. It’s something that can destroy a family more than anything else because there’s so many questions.”
Battle says it pays to know where to send people. Her phone is full of numbers for doctors, counselors, psychiatrists, anyone and everyone willing to spring into action to get a traumatized kid into therapy or a newly orphaned one into the custody of a trusted relative.
“Whenever it’s homicides with children involved, it hurts you because if we don’t get those children immediate counseling, we will see those children again,” she says.
For Battle, the most important number on speed-dial is the Rev. Dr. Daly Barnes of the 59th Street Baptist Church. “He keeps me spiritually connected,” she says.
“He is the greatest pastor alive and you can quote me on that,” she says. She calls him when she feels overwhelmed and frustrated. “He’ll say, ‘Now Kathy, mercy.’ His favorite thing to say to me is mercy.”
Just as Battle has gotten to know many of the funeral directors in town, she also knows many of the ministers, priests, rabbis and imams on a first-name basis by attending funerals of homicide victims.
“A lot of [funerals] I go to because the family may express … safety issues. If we’ve made an arrest, nine times out of 10 I won’t go. But say it’s an active job and we feel the offender may attend ... part of my job is to let the numbered district know where it’s going to happen so I can have a uniformed cop outside.”
Battle says it’s typical in drug-war culture for murderers to show up at their victims’ funerals. “It’s some kind of ritual,” she offers, adding that in these cases, many mourners are strapped.
Surrounded by sorrow and vengeance, Battle serves as both protector and lookout, blending in the pews, dressed in civvies, her radio and GLOCK, “as heavy as it is sometimes,” she laughs, concealed on her person.
Battle says the Police Department makes every attempt not to disrupt the services. In fact, she lets the minister know what’s up ahead of time.
“I go and introduce myself to the pastor to let him know, ‘I’m coming into your church armed.’ That’s just respect,” she nods. “We’re sensitive to the family’s needs but we’re also sensitive to not disrespect god’s house.”
Criminals tend not to show the same courtesy.
Battle describes a stakeout scene from a few years ago that almost turned into a Quentin Tarantino-style disaster.
“This is when we were having problems up in Lansdowne. They were shooting at Masters Street and there was a war going on at 55th and Poplar. We received word that the guys were coming to the funeral to take someone down,” she says.
The suspected “doer” showed up at the church. Battle got up to follow him on his way out, and ran smack into chaos: a group of men in black masks with guns drawn rushed in from around the corner. She didn’t know it at the time, but it was ATF officers acting on their own tip. Then the PPD’s Criminal Intelligence Unit came running in with their guns drawn.
“You learn from things like that,” says Battle. “I never draw my weapon unnecessarily, but that day I would have blown someone away.”
Since then, the PPD installed protocol so everyone is informed.
While most murder victims are between 18 and 24 years old, last year six children under the age of 10 were killed in Philadelphia.
It’s too much to bear, even for a cop whose beat is managing grief.
“When we did all the kids’ funerals, I started crying,” Battle says, referring to the deaths of 22-year-old Latoya Smith, her baby Remedy, 6-year-old Aaliyah Griffin and 7-year-old Gina Rosario, all killed when struck by a vehicle speeding away from a crime scene. “As hard as I was trying to be superwoman,” says Battle, trailing off. “Most of us are parents and even though you try to keep it apart, it’s hard.”
Like most officers, or most anybody really, Battle has an inherent soft spot for kids affected by murder. “The children are the ones who are the true victims,” she says. After 24 years on the force and as the mother of two and the grandmother of a 6-year-old boy, Battle has seen firsthand how violent crime and murder in Philadelphia traumatizes children even when it’s not their own family member that’s killed.
She recalls a crime-scene encounter a few weeks ago when rookie Officer Rudolph Gary shot and killed his former brother-in-law in broad daylight in South Philly.
When a homicide goes down in front of a neighborhood like that, Battle sees everyone that witnesses the violence as victims also—especially kids.
“I went down there and a lot of kids said, ‘Cops shoot people.’ … It was such a profound statement for a child to look at me and say, ‘Cops kill,’” she says, shaking her head.
“These kids witnessed what happened. I’m trying to un-convince them. I said, ‘When you see us in uniform, we don’t do that. Now he didn’t have a uniform on, did he?’ Because this 7-year-old is talking to me … I can’t just walk away and figure his mother will talk to him. You get one opportunity.”
One way Battle seizes that opportunity is by keeping a stash of big fuzzy stuffed bears on hand. They come in black and white, boys and girls.
“I took that bear and I shoved it in his face,” she says, briefly cracking up with laughter. “No, I didn’t shove it in his face,” she says seriously. “I gave it to him and said, ‘this is what police give, we give love.’”
It’s a small gesture, but Battle says it helps break the ice and soften a hard situation.
“Realize that I’m talking to a 7-year-old inner city male whose already got the mind of a 20-year-old in his head because he’s seen the things the average 7-year-old should never ever see. He saw that shooting. His thing is, ‘Cops kill people.’ That was it. But I had an opportunity to kind of let him know that cops give bears, cops give love, if you’re in trouble, reach out.”
After some hesitation, the boy took the stuffed animal and hopefully, his mother took Battle's advice "to get him into therapy.”
Part of the reason Battle is able to connect with kids so well is because of her warm mannerisms and street clothes. “In a positive way, most people don’t believe I’m a cop,” she laughs.
Battle also hosts an annual holiday party for kids of slain citizens. It’s usually hosted in the Roundhouse auditorium but Battle says Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey was determined to throw a better party last year. He came through, finding Battle a little extra money so she could host the party in the top floor of the View banquet hall at Broad and Brown.
Battle invited 41 children of homicide victims, and recruited a fellow officer to dress as Santa. In the many photographs snapped that day, kids and teens with slain fathers are smiling, stories above the North Philly pavement.
The only job that emotionally rivals burying children is when a police officer is killed.
One tidy accordion file on a shelf next to Battle’s desk contains the files of all the Philadelphia police officers killed since she’s been on the job. When an officer is killed, Battle works with the Fraternal Order of Police to get all the paperwork and benefits to the family as quickly as possible.
She picks up a folder and hugs it to her chest.
“This,” she sighs, “this, I cry when I do it. This is the folder of all the police officers that have been killed since I’ve been doing this. And it hurts.”
Ten Philadelphia police officers have been killed in the line of duty since 2003. Battle is solemn as she flips through the folder. “This [file] starts with Gary Skerski,” she says. Gary F. Skerski was a 46-year-old officer who was shot and killed in 2006 while responding to an armed robbery after 16 years on the force.
“This is Skerski, this is Cassidy, this is Liczbinski, Nazario, McDonald, Simpson, Pawlowski,” she says. “This is all their paperwork and it hurts…because even though you think you are prepared you never are when it becomes your own.”
Battle says she acutely feels the loss of a fellow officer, even if she didn’t know him or her personally. “It’s like I lost someone in my family,” she says. You become like family working so closely together. Every aspect of a case is important. In the trenches, it's a matter of give and take.
Battle takes the heat off homicides cops too busy working the case to deal with grieving family members all day. Senior Detective Eddie Rocks, a 40-year veteran on the force, says detectives were overwhelmed with constant phone calls from family members before Battle came on board.
“It’s hard because the family wants to know what’s happening as you do your investigation … and they’ll call in a complaint if they can’t reach you,” he says. While he’s still very close with some family members from cases from over the years, he simply doesn’t have the time to both form new relationships and clear cases. “Kathy can walk right up to my desk and ask what’s happening with the case, or pull the file.”
“The [detectives] get assigned certain cases, but I got to know all of them,” Battle sighs.
Such openness wasn’t always PPD policy.
“I can remember being a young uniform cop 40 years ago,” he says. “I was on a homicide case. So I’m at City Hall, I got the binder open and I’m reading interviews. I was the cop on the case. Then the old-time homicide cop came out, ‘What are you doing?’ and swish,” he says, miming slamming a book shut. “‘I’m a cop and you can’t even let a cop see it?’ That’s how they were.”
Old-school secrecy is a far cry from the relatively new-wave culture that emphasizes communication between neighborhoods, families and police. “We’re understanding the different neighborhoods in which we work,” says Battle, while crediting Commissioner Ramsey and Captain James Clark with being interested in improving relationships with families left behind by homicide.
“One of the things Ramsey and Clark wanted me to do was to make sure the families know what’s going on [with investigations], because that is part of their healing,” says Battle.
When Ramsey signed on as commissioner in January 2008, he brought the concept of the “next-of-kin meeting” with him from his previous position as chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.
Battle says Ramsey encouraged her to take the basic formula of the next-of-kin meeting and take it to the next level. In addition to inviting the families, Battle also brings in detectives, the district attorney, head medical examiner and local support groups who set up information booths for families to browse between appointments.
The first one was held in 2008 and covered all 2007 cases. At the last one, held in March, Battle sent out 185 invitations. Seventy family members of murder victims showed up.
Battle says it’s important to have the medical examiner there so he can answer painful questions about how quickly the victim died. “A lot of people want to know, did my loved one suffer?” says Battle.
“He explains to them that usually the first bullet takes them out.”
It’s a chance for family to address specific concerns about their case though Battle concedes that “Most of the specific concerns are, ‘Why isn’t this solved yet?’”
Next-of-kin meetings aren’t just feel-good public relations. Communication is a two-way street. On a practical level, Battle harvests tips from these meetings the PPD would otherwise likely miss.
“Sometimes, the family gets more information than we do. People in the community will tell the family, ‘John did it and I saw him!’ But they won’t tell us because of that no-snitch policy. Or… they’ll tell us one thing but go back and tell the family something different.”
Essentially, Battle catches more bees, and hopefully murderers, with honey.
“Lot of times they’ll tell me something they wouldn’t tell the detective because maybe they didn’t like the way he talked to or responded to them,” she says. “Now here I come with this calm, soothing voice.”
Battle’s getting ready for retirement sometime in the next few years, after what she calls a great career with the PPD.
“I’ve seen things the average person hasn’t,” says Battle. She likes to say that if she was walking the beat somewhere, she could stop the president—at least until she found out he was the president.
“It’s an awesome power bestowed on you and you have to know how to use it,” she says.
She has only one bit of advice for the next officer to take her position. “Have an open heart, and don’t judge,” she says.
Like with police.
“If there’s one bad cop, he makes all the rest look bad,” she says. “But on the whole, I’d like to think people judge as they meet us.”
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide
PW's Winter Coffee Tour