Police Use of Force, Reporting the Data, and Philly’s Institutional Press

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Declaration Editorial

The latest by Morgan Zalot and Vinny Vella at Daily News, “Shell shocked: Stress lingers for cops who fired guns” is another example of how the eponymous “People’s Paper” at times generates output effectively on behalf of the Philadelphia Police Department – in this case by relying exclusively on department statistics in its articles.

The story is introduced as a tale of the trauma and healing for officers involved in deadly or potentially fatal incidents, a piece we wish had been written and would read with great interest. The article does dedicate space to exploring personal stories and the psychological trauma that both being the object of violence and perpetrating violence can cause, but quickly inflates to a scope in which testimonial becomes anecdote.

“Shell-shocked” turns out to be a rebuttal to the newly-born “Black Lives Matter” era, promoting the idea that police generally use commendable restraint given disproportionate and somehow irrational threats against their personal safety, and attempts to make the case with entirely asymmetric data from a single, police department, source. We would never deny that the job of a police officer can be at times incredibly dangerous, but the one-sided presentation here appears so constructive that, instead of giving readers a much-needed report into police-involved violence, likely engenders public misconceptions.

Daily News‘ wholesale acceptance of agency accounts is by no means exclusive to or uniform within the publication. Helen Ubinas and Will Bunch at the DN, among others, often offer impacting critical perspective, which is almost always met with a deluge of vitriol from locals in the comments section. And Daily News is not the lone offender when it comes to uncritically accepting the Philadelphia Police Department’s word. The Inquirer, for example, effectively acted as public relations for the Fraternal Order of Police with its parroting of a police provided “summary” via email of official documents impugning not only the integrity of the victims featured in “Tainted Justice”, but the professional reputations of DN journalists Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman after a years-long investigation into a corrupt Philadelphia police narcotics squad. These documents have not yet seen the light of day, and the Justice Department continues dragging its heels in releasing the records to The Declaration.

Zalot’s crime coverage also includes a very curious rejoinder report from October 2013, “Police: Victim in fatal Center City shooting was not a tourist,” where she breaks the news that an African American man brutally executed after being robbed in Love Park was “not a tourist who was taking pictures…as some news reports initially indicated.” Posted with the article is a video which never refers to the victim as a tourist, and says it is not clear “whether tourists were involved,” but does report “police say the shooting victim was with friends…where they were taking pictures of the famous Philadelphia landmark,” before being approached by a robber from whom they fled. The victim was then chased down and fired upon 8 times, with a single wound to the abdomen proving fatal.

As no account is cited (nor can we find one) describing the victim as a “tourist,” one has to suppose that Zalot’s overall point was that the deceased man wasn’t just minding his own business. Police sources cite a criminal record which the author verifies, but never makes any specific allegation of wrongdoing.  Zalot reported that “Police said it was unclear exactly why he was with a group of people at the corner of 15th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard shortly after 2:30 a.m. when gunfire erupted, but said that the shooting appeared to stem from a robbery.”

It is altogether puzzling why police felt the need to provide information to a journalist in order to correct a mistake which was not made. It is yet more puzzling why a journalist would want to publish based on such a tip, and it is perhaps most confounding of all that an editor would allow it to see the light of day. The article served only to impugn the reputation of a dead man and perpetuate a stereotype while adding nothing to public knowledge of the incident.

Returning to “Shell-shocked,” it is unclear when information is new or simply restated. For example, is the paper’s analysis that regarding 29 of 40 officer-involved shooting incidents, according to department-provided data, 29 equals 73% of 40?

As for the data and the authors’ conclusions, do they really provide an actual picture of the danger routinely presented to officers?

One perspective conspicuously lacking in Zalot’s crime reporting, and specifically in “Shell-shocked”, is that of self-described data geek Kelvyn Anderson, the Executive Director of the civilian-led Police Advisory Commission. Anderson has fought hard for access to PPD data on use-of-force and officer involved shootings, and has made an extensive project out of analyzing and mapping such data. The Declaration reached out to Anderson via email for his impression of the picture painted by Daily News.

“I’m glad to hear the experiences from the officer point of view, and it emphasizes our need to understand these events from a more comprehensive stance. I’ve never believed officers spend their time waiting around to shoot folks, and this provides a valuable look into their experiences,” he says.

He added, however: “The numbers presented here are another story.”

Anderson points to the graph offered by the Daily News as an example:

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“Some of those assertions should be parsed out more clearly. For example, the 3.4 million calls doesn’t mean 3.4 million face to face encounters between police and citizens, as the average person viewing the information might assume. The vast majority of those are simply calls for service to police radio. How many of those are actual contacts? Cops throw out the total calls for service number as a way to say ‘Nothing is wrong, we do a great job in the vast majority of circumstances.'”

Anderson also thinks the ‘assault on officers’ statistics offered by Daily News warrants closer scrutiny:

“One of the more interesting exercises would be to compare the number of reported assaults with instances in which folks are actually charged with assault on police, which is considerably less.”

Anderson, with the help of Philly Rap Sheet, has tallied 32 charges of assaults on police between May 2012 and December 2014. While stressing that this is not an exact count, it’s certainly closer to reality, and clearly a far cry from the number offered to DN by the Philadelphia Police Department.

“Let’s say it’s actually double that number, or even triple to say 100 or so charges. That’s still far less than the numbers presented (477 in 2014 alone). Why isn’t the DA charging folks if [people] are actually assaulting cops at that rate? How many of those charges actually resulted in convictions?”

George Fachner of CNA Corporation, a private research and consulting agency, who worked with Philadelphia Police, the Department of Justice, and various community leaders in a review of officer-involved-shootings (OIS), felt that authors of the Daily News article did a good job of providing context on a complex subject. Fachner adds:

Incidents involving armed persons are sometimes avoidable, but I think we need to recognize that all OISs are not created equal….the tendency to simply count and compare the number of OISs within or across any department falls short of providing real insight. 

The reality is that providing an accurate description of violence between civilians and police is far beyond a numbers game. It is quite possible to present two separate and individually consistent data sets as statistics, which contradict one another. We also cannot rely on anecdote, that is, attempt to counter objective data with isolated incidents that which are contrary to statistical trends.

Stories indeed need to be told of the tragedy of Post-Traumatic Stress that results from police-involved violence, and these must include the struggles of law enforcement officers as they deal with very real threats to their lives – but the context must detail the environment of fear and rational suspicion in many communities, predominately low-income and populated by people-of-color, that civilians may be subject to not only spurious prosecution but physical harm through even incidental encounters with law enforcement. We must also present the mental trauma that inflicting at-times unjustified violence can have on stewards of public safety.

Philadelphia’s own police union boss has been a shameless apologist for officers accused of corruption and brutality, and his singular countenance of resistance to civilian oversight and accountability for misconduct – best illustrated, perhaps, when in a March 2012 letter to the Police Advisory Commission, McNesby called the group “a direct threat to public safety in this city.” – in our view, encapsulate the single greatest threat to improved relations between minorities and police in the city. FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby gets a nod in “Shell-Shocked” as the voice for progressive mental health care for law enforcement.

Other work from the same author regarding the Philly cop union head, among whose public declarations is “Well, you’re allowed to use force out there” in response to now-reinstated police Lieutenant Jonathan Josey cold-cocking a woman in the face during a Puerto Rican Day parade, include giving space to the sentiment of his “scathing letter” raging at a Bucks County paper for printing a police-critical cartoon. The cartoon, which featured Santa being asked by children to keep them “safe from police,” prompted threats from McNesby to hit the newspaper where it hurts, in the pocketbook, which Zalot reprints: “Rest assured that this letter will be distributed to as many residents and businesses in Bucks County as we are able to reach…Here’s wishing you a bankrupt New Year.”

As Fachner noted in his comments, the improvement trend in officer-involved shootings in the Philadelphia Police Department is a new one – it was an extremely trigger-happy 5 years for the department, which led Ramsey to invite the DOJ who contracted Fachner’s employer.  The review prompted policies later reported on in November 2014. It would be premature for The Declaration to bring you an analysis of these policies’ effects.

A realistic and actionable perspective involves humanizing both “sides” of police-involved violence, so that we are neither trying to support an image of police as a blood-thirsty lynch squad nor painting them as archangels battling ceaseless assault from irrational evil – in other words, the truth.

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About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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