By Austin Nolen
A final report by federal authorities on the Philadelphia Police Department’s reform efforts has been indefinitely delayed by the Department of Justice as the result of a directive from recently-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In 2013, Philly police requested the assistance of the Community Oriented Policing Services Office of DOJ as part of the collaborative reform process. In that process, COPS works with police to fix problems voluntarily, instead of suing to obtain a binding consent decree.
After working for two years, COPS issued its first report in the spring of 2015. The report described in blunt terms the failure of Philly police officials to adequately train, supervise and discipline officers for their use of deadly force.
In its first follow up report issued in December 2015, COPS found substantial progress toward the recommendations it made for the Department. Then, in January 2017, the office issued a short interim final report prior to the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations
During the press conference for the interim final report, then-Director Ronald Davis promised that COPS would issue a longer final report in February or March 2017. In April, a spokesperson estimated that the final report would be issued in May.
Now, a spokesperson for COPS says that the final report is indefinitely on hold as the result of a directive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions signed the directive ordering his deputies to review all Justice Department oversight of police agencies in March.
Sessions was critical of the increased focus on police accountability by the Obama Justice Department and his directive instructed subordinates that “the safety and protection of the public is the paramount concern and duty of law enforcement officials.”
The most noticed impact of this directive was on consent decrees between the Justice Department and local police departments accused of civil rights abuses. Sessions DOJ officials tried to delay the approval of a consent decree with the Baltimore Police negotiated in the last days of the Obama administration.
Consent decrees are controversial instruments for police reform. Even some scholars supportive of police reform have noted that sweeping reforms ordered by court decrees are very costly for the federal government and for the police agencies involved and that they may also fail to have a sustained effect.
As the delay of the COPS Office report shows, however, the impact of Sessions’ policy goes beyond costly consent decrees. The collaborative reform procedure is specifically designed to avoid this contentious process.
A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney asserted that “the change in federal administration doesn’t change our priorities locally. We are still committed to the reform laid out in that report.”
However, without a public report, Philadelphians in general remain in the dark about exactly what that commitment looks like.
According to the interim final report, police have taken no action or limited action on almost thirty percent of COPS recommendations. At about one-tenth of the size of the first report, however, the interim final report contains few details about the causes of these delays.
The City must bargain with the Fraternal Order of Police in order to win union agreement to implement some of those stalled recommendations. The next collective bargaining session is scheduled to begin in July.
It is possible that the Justice Department will still be delaying the release of the final public report when those closed-door negotiations begin.