The charges against Philadelphia Police Officer Phillip Nordo read like an episode of The Shield. The grand jury presentment, should you have the stomach for it, is closer to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. For over twenty years, Officer Nordo groomed, sexually assaulted, and used crime reward funds to pay off vulnerable men in Philadelphia. Whether in his transport van, prison visiting rooms, or police interrogation rooms, he regularly exploited his unfettered access to and absolute control over vulnerable individuals. Though he was not convicted until 2022, the communities he stalked and preyed upon knew exactly what Nordo was doing in the decades leading up to his arrest. Living in the streets where Nordo flexed his considerable power, these Philadelphians had nowhere to run, and no one to whom to report the bad detective. They could not call the other officers who took turns leaving Nordo alone with suspects for long stretches of time. Nor could they rely on the Internal Affairs Division, who corroborated rape allegations against Nordo and then kept him on payroll for another decade. And they certainly could not turn to Philadelphia prosecutors, who had quietly put Nordo on a “no call list.”
This Article is not about Phillip Nordo. This Article is about the outright excision of agency that our legal system exacts on vulnerable communities. At every stage, our legal system strips already marginalized communities of power, particularly communities of color. Mass incarceration, a mechanism to uphold white supremacy, has further corroded individual and collective autonomy in these communities. This Article examines the ways in which law enforcement, the legal system, and the carceral state remove agency from individuals. In the final section, this Article suggests measures to immediately empower incarcerated individuals who have been stripped of their agency by our system.