Police don't become friends with the men they arrest. But that's exactly what happened to Reggie Graham and Cory Long.
The judge seems as moved by the testimony as anyone in the courtroom, perhaps more so. At one point he looks around intently, scanning faces, trying to read spectators' reactions.
Legrome Davis, a former homicide prosecutor and a Bush choice for the federal bench, isn't known for leniency. Until Reggie Graham and Cory Long walked through his courtroom doors he hadn't used the word "probation" much his entire career.
Davis handles drug cases. Here in Philadelphia, the feds don't look up from their morning coffee unless the target of their investigation is particularly notorious: a dealer moving major weight, preferably with firearms. The defendants Davis sees have generally been caught with the best available evidence--wiretaps, video surveillance and large amounts of illegal drugs, usually accompanied by weapons.
Long, today's defendant, woke up knowing he could be sent to federal prison for at least five to seven years. However, he had an advantage: Reggie Graham.
Graham was the arresting officer when Long was taken into custody. But in the two years since that night a strange chain of events brought the pair together, and Graham became convinced Long deserved a break. So convinced he was willing to risk his reputation as a cop to give it to him.
"Unprecedented," says police union spokesperson Gene Blagmond. "I've heard of officers testifying as character witnesses for family members or someone they grew up with, but for someone they first met, uh, professionally, like I said: unprecedented."
Pinning his rep to a man he first met in a house filled with coke wasn't something Graham took lightly. But when he spoke to the judge it was with the certainty of a veteran undercover cop.
"I consider myself a perceptive guy," Graham said. "In my 10 years I've never seen anyone turn around. But I'm proud to say this young man has turned his life around. I can see it in his works."
There was a brief pause before Graham spoke his most important words, a sentence that could serve to symbolize the possibilities that still exist in a city hardened by drugs and violence.
"We've become friends," he said, staring directly at the judge.
It's been a little more than a year since Graham testified to the judge on behalf of his new friend. Since then they've spoken together at antiviolence events and school programs in Philadelphia and Chester, Long's hometown. They're starting Vision Brothers Entertainment and Production, which will specialize in "clean" entertainment for kids and teenagers, such as chaperoned teen dances, positive hip-hop and lessons in recording, producing and engineering music.
Long, 31, also stopped attending his church in Chester to be mentored by the 36-year-old Graham at his church, the New Consolation Christian Center at 25th and Wharton in South Philly. "Church members don't often see how they inspire their ministers," says pastor David Gaines. "But Cory and Reggie inspire me every day to continue to walk out my path. Seeing individuals like them responding to challenges and becoming great in their time is something personally I'd die for."
Gaines grew up with Graham, and isn't surprised to see what's become of his childhood friend. "Reggie would come out and play," says Gaines, "but not a whole lot. Looking back, the thing about Reggie that stood out is that, for a kid, he was always doing something productive."
The story of a criminal reformed isn't new. What makes this story unique is a police officer's direct involvement. And Graham's story is that of a cop who joined the force for reasons far more romantic than good municipal benefits. "I grew up in South Philly," says Graham, who lived in the Passyunk projects and at 24th and Manton, among other places. "I wanted to help the community."
Because he's an undercover narcotics cop, Graham can't be described in detail. But he carries himself with a physical confidence shy of swagger. He moves fluidly, his limbs appearing longer than they are, and he radiates the kind of ease that comes with knowing several different ways to defeat the man in front of him.
That too is a product of his mother's good sense. After he and his brother were robbed of groceries as children, Graham's mother enrolled him in martial arts classes at the Unity Community Center in Camden, N.J., where he also joined the drill team. The classes kept him off the streets, and taught him about the rewards of hard work.
Graham smiles almost all the time. And while many undercover officers often look like cops, he can change his appearance from working man to hustler simply by turning his baseball cap sideways. On the witness stand in a suit, he's difficult to recognize as the man in the baggy jeans, sweatshirt and Yankees cap who prowled the streets looking for drugs the night before.
In interviews with prosecutors, federal agents, the inspector in charge of narcotics and his old supervising sergeant, he comes across as one of the city's more dedicated cops.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4