On January 25, 2019, Thomas O’Neill, a 24-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, pled guilty to one count of deprivation of rights under 18 U.S.C. §242 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Philly.com reported O’Neill sexually assaulted a woman in his squad car while on duty on July 3, 2016. He retired from the police force two months later.
O’Neill previously responded to a robbery call at the survivor’s apartment, and when he spotted her a few days later riding her bike, he demanded she enter his marked vehicle. O’Neill then drove to an isolated location near a high school and sexually assaulted her for at least an hour, all while forcing his service weapon and a knife against her leg. During the attack, O’Neill expressed his desire to rape Black women and also described prior sexual assaults he committed in his squad car. After the assault, the survivor received a series of text messages from O’Neill’s number asking her for nude pictures.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office offered a deal that entailed a guilty plea in exchange for one year of imprisonment. Without this deal, he faced a maximum prison sentence of ten years. Faced with evidence including a nearby high school’s video surveillance footage of the attack and his DNA on the survivor’s clothing, O’Neill accepted this plea bargain. During his guilty plea allocution, O’Neill blamed part of his criminal behavior on his alcoholism. Chief Judge Juan R. Sanchez is scheduled to sentence O’Neill in May.
The survivor in this case is also bringing a civil suit against the City of Philadelphia. Among other civil rights claims, she alleges Philadelphia’s police officers are poorly trained. She is seeking punitive damages in part for her continued emotional distress as a result of the assault. Her attorney for the civil suit stated that he expects to uncover more misconduct by the City of Philadelphia in the civil case.
Unfortunately, these attacks are far too common. O’Neill, and other officers the CSE Institute has reported on in the past, abuse their positions of power and privilege as police officers to manipulate the trust of others. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan stated in this case, the survivor “did not feel she could refuse to get into [O’Neill’s] patrol vehicle,” because O’Neill was in a position of authority.
The CSE Institute applauds the efforts of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in securing O’Neill’s arrest. Additionally, the CSE Institute commends Assistant United States Attorney and our Advisory Board member Michelle Morgan’s work on the prosecution of this case. We admire the survivor’s strength in reporting this incident and support her continued efforts to combat future abuse of police power in Philadelphia through her civil suit.
All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or Villanova University.