Great Cities Face Great Challenges – The Urgency of Transparency & the Collaborative Review of Fatal Police Shootings

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 By Kenneth Lipp

“Great cities face great challenges.”

– Philly Police Officer-Involved-Shooting web page

Commissioner Ramsey took time during a recent TEDxPhiladelphia symposium  to discuss why, for 6 months,  the department’s official narrative of the fatal shooting by police of Brandon Tate-Brown contradicted video evidence. There is a pending lawsuit and not out-of-the-question call for a DOJ investigation of the killing by family attorney Brian Mildenberg –  even as reforms under a collaborative review have begun moving from administrative processing to implemented policy.

Commissioner Ramsey should fast track all recommendations within Chapter 9, External Oversight and Transparency, of An Assessment of Deadly Force by the Philadelphia Police Department, by George Fachner and Stephen Carter, researchers for CNA Corporation . In particular the department should  immediately put into practice the recommendations of Finding 47 and especially  Recommendation 47.3 – external oversight of all PPD shootings where the subject is unarmed.

We would ask the Police Commissioner to avoid more public apologetics for poor communication and the broken confidence of the community, which really just amounts to more internal analysis, and only convinces an incredulous community to write his word off entirely.

There have been three shootings by Philadelphia Police in 2015 that would meet the criteria – the next unarmed officer-involved-shooting (OIS) should be immediately submitted for review by an external body.

External Oversight and Transparency

To assess the degree to which the department practices good faith transparency and subjects itself to independent scrutiny, the DOJ report authors focused on two key elements, “the relationship between the department and the Police Advisory Commission (PAC), and the release of information to the public regarding deadly force incidents and outcomes,” and doing so produced  “four key findings and 11 recommendations to reform the PPD into a more transparent organization.”

The DOJ reviewers concluded that “segments of the Philadelphia community do not trust the agency or any local partners to conduct a fair and objective investigation of OISs.”  The authors go on:  “This distrust stems from incidents in which members of the department have engaged in corruption and excessive uses of force and from the department’s lack of transparency on these matters.”

“We make no claim that the department is an untrustworthy agent when it comes to investigating OISs.” 

Recommendation 47.3 is aimed at resolving the distinct issue of public confidence in the PPD’s investigation of OIS , independent of the actual competence and integrity of those investigations. Here we will not nor need we address whether or not shootings are justified. While it is not a reach to assume frequent embellishments and coordination among officers to cover lapses in judgement or violations of policy, we can eliminate arbitrary killing and cover-up as an operational motive for the police in our city.

I don’t personally know “most cops,” and no one else does either, but I believe most of them are doing the best they can and want to do their jobs well, and mostly I believe they are doing just that, their jobs upon which they rely to support themselves and their families (to protect this, though,  gentle citizen, let me tell you that it is naivete to believe that a Philly cop has never planted a gun after he shot an unarmed man).

An external oversight board review of the Brandon Tate-Brown killing would not have saved the young man’s tragically brief life, but a relationship between the department and community of mutual respect based on consistent good-faith dealings could easily save other black men like Tate-Brown, who apparently acted out of fear in attempting to evade the officers before one shot him in the head a late night early last winter.

When Philadelphia Police kill someone, this will make someone angry. Relatives will be in mourning, and even when presented with iron-clad evidence that the decedent was an armed threat, few mothers or fathers are ready to believe their sons and daughters deserved to die. Police Advisory Commission Executive Director Kelvyn Anderson, who has spoken to hundreds of family-members and friends of OIS victims, recalls only one person, aunt of a young man killed by the PPD, being of a mind that her loved-one had given the officers no choice.

But to this anger and frustration the department adds first uncertainty, withholding facts and evidence from the community, and ultimately resentment and contempt by dismissing unanswered questions and concerns over wrongdoing.

Even with a sobering if not outright-condemning body of findings from the CNA  researchers, just days ago Commissioner Ramsey sought to deflect responsibility for a serious and long-lived official falsehood onto a third party.

Helen Ubinas has covered the case in her column regularly – and is perhaps the “press/media” to whom Ramsey referred when he attributed the publicized misapprehension to a rush in satisfying a detail-thirsty press.

The Associated Press reported: “The Philadelphia Police Department’s rush to provide the public with details on a fatal shooting involving an officer in Mayfair was to blame for a false report that the man was reaching into a car for a handgun, Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said Thursday.

Ramsey said the department was trying to satisfy reporters’ thirst for information on last December’s shooting of Brandon Tate-Brown as well as the need for a thorough investigation to parse out the facts.”

In fact few details were released in the month after Tate-Brown’s death. Few in the press asked questions after initial reports of the fatal shooting in Mayfair late last December, and if Ramsey felt any pressure from the desperate cries of Brandon’s mother and protests in the street, he ignored it. More than two full months later answers were still each like a drop of blood squeezed from a stone. Ramsey played poker, occasionally calling referees over to see his hand and only laying it on the table after it was clear what kind of cards he was holding.

As reported in the Inquirer in February: “Initially, police said … he lunged for a handgun hidden in the console of his 2014 Dodge Charger as he struggled with two cops outside…. now, they’re saying Tate-Brown also ‘reached for his waistband’ in the skirmish, according to a narrative of the incident police posted on their website.”

A PPD spokesman explained the revision as an error in “the preliminary report issued to the public, which contained information that has since been updated.”

It was only days ago that a very important and plainly misreported detail was corrected in the official documentation, as Ubinas reported in her column on Monday:

“As of last night, a summary of the incident on the police department’s website still states that Tate-Brown ‘ran to the passenger side of the window and was reaching for a gun when an officer shot him.’  Ramsey said he’d get that fixed.”

The report has since been updated.

The result of the PR approach of evasion and peek-a-boo disclosures is that instead of saving face when a mistake is made, the department looks like it intends to operate with impunity. The misleading offering is not just haphazard, it is selective transparency and it is toxic to restorative community-policing, and makes the city more dangers for police and civilians.

The next time Philly Police fire upon an unarmed person, the case should be submitted to an outside law enforcement body for review. Recommendation 47.3 outlines the process – its main points are extracted below.

  • The police commissioner should enter into a memorandum of understanding with an external, independent investigative agency, through which the investigation of all OISs involving an unarmed person will be submitted for review.
  • The PPD should make its request and the agency’s response transparent.
  • The PPD should notify the public when a case is submitted, whether the agency accepts or declines to recommend charges, and ultimately the agency’s findings or recommendations for further action to be taken.
  • The PPD should formalize this recommendation into policy.
  • The department may set a sunset clause and revisit the policy two years from its implementation.
  • The PPD should consider the Philadelphia field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Pennsylvania office of the U.S. Attorney General to serve in this role.
  • In addition to OISs involving unarmed persons, the department may also consider other controversial, challenged, or complex OIS incidents for external review at the discretion of the commissioner.

The report predicts an average of 5 such cases per year, based on past trends. It goes on to characterize this rate:  “From 2007 to 2013, approximately 15 percent of subjects in OISs were unarmed. 

There are no reliable national estimates on the prevalence and nature of OISs. Therefore, we cannot say whether this number is high or low.

However, we believe any police leader would agree that the law enforcement profession should take all efforts to reduce, in whole, the number shootings of unarmed persons.

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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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