Breaking Down the Justice Department’s New Report on Philly Police Use-of-Force

Image: COPS Office report cover.

Image: COPS Office report cover.

By Dustin Slaughter

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office released today a review of Philly police officer-involved shootings (OIS) from 2007 through 2013, based on documents, interviews, direct observation, and data analysis. The report, titled Collaborative Reform Initiative—An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department, identified “serious deficiencies” in a number of the 48 findings on police department procedures and policies.

The COPS Office report includes recommendations for improvement regarding use-of-force policies; recruit and in-service training; OIS investigations and internal review mechanisms including the Use-of-Force Review Board and Police Board of Inquiry; officer accountability; and the department’s current relationship (or lack thereof) with the civil oversight Police Advisory Commission, and its overall attitude towards external oversight and transparency.


The Who, Where, and Why of Officer-Involved Shootings

Between 2007 and 2013, 55 officer involved shootings occurred in the 22nd Police District (the same district in which a police body camera pilot launched recently), followed by 41 in the 25th, and 32 in the 19th.

The report found that 80% of suspects shot by Philadelphia police were African American, and primarily males in their early to mid-20s. 10% of victims were Hispanic, followed closely by whites at 9%.

While regular patrol officers made up the vast majority of shootings, the study also found that because of the size of other patrol units, including highway patrol and narcotics strike force, the rate of OIS for those units in particular are “relatively high.”

The report also found that 56% of suspects at the time of the OIS were armed; 15% were unarmed, and were shot largely as a result of what researchers call “Threat Perception Failures” (TPF), such as an officer mistaking a cell phone for a weapon. The remaining suspects were reported to have been “armed” by threatening or otherwise using a vehicle to harm an officer (8%); other suspects were armed with items such as knives or other sharp objects (8%); and lastly, 3% were armed with BB guns or blunt objects.

15% of officers who discharged a weapon were involved in more than just one shooting.

COPS also found that 2014 saw the fewest shootings by and at officers since the study’s 2007 to 2013 timeframe.


Report Concludes PPD Must Improve Cooperation with Civilian Oversight, Provide Greater Transparency to Public

The review found a strong need to improve making officer-involved shooting data available on the police department’s website, as well as cooperating with civilian oversight agencies such as the Police Advisory Commission (PAC). As The Declaration reported in February, PAC took the unusual step of preparing a subpoena to compel the police department to release shooting investigation records after PPD’s failure to respond to the request in 2013.

Crucially, the review found a pervasive “distrust [throughout Philly communities] in the ability of the PPD to investigate itself,” adding: “Scandals of the past and present, high profile OIS incidents, and a lack of transparency in investigative outcomes help cement this distrust.”

Investigators note that the police department has started to post more officer-involved shooting information online. The report, however, urges PPD to go further by publishing Directives 10 and 22 (“Use of Deadly Force” and general “Use of Force”, respectively) on its website. The review goes on to state that the public “should not have to wait three months to learn the facts and circumstances of a deadly conflict involving a member of the department” – a thinly-veiled reference to the outrage over the shooting death of 26 year-old Brandon Tate-Brown – and urges the PPD to publish “incident summaries” and to convene a press conference no later than 72 hours after a police-involved shooting. Other recommendations include posting information on closed OIS cases, including “more detailed accounts of the OIS and DAO [District Attorney’s Office] review of the incident”, and publicly releasing an annual OIS report.

The report also recommends all OIS incidents involving unarmed individuals be referred to either the FBI or US Attorney’s Office (called “independent law enforcement authority”) for investigation after PPD and DAO conclude their investigations. It is not at all clear whether federal officials have actually been consulted on this point, however.

Findings also took aim at the Philadelphia Police Department’s dysfunctional relationship with the city’s civilian oversight board. Noting that despite an executive order permitting the Police Advisory Commission access to department investigatory records and data, PPD “has not cooperated” with a PAC request for such information. COPS simply calls for the PPD to produce this, and future data requests, “in a timely manner.”

More robust than that, however: PPD should provide PAC observers with a briefing from investigators in the aftermath of all officer-involved shootings. A recently-proposed ballot measure that did not survive a council vote last year would have strengthened the civilian oversight agency by infusing it with $1 million annually, conceivably making it able to send investigators to cover more OIS scenes in a timely manner, and bringing it up to par with other U.S. cities’ police oversight agencies.

The current executive order permits PAC to visit OIS-related crime scenes, but due to the commission’s paltry budget of approximately $200,000, the agency is unable to hire enough staff to accomplish this.



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