Public Must Be Able to “Make Meaningful Use” of Police Complaints Data

By Declaration Staff

In a comment submitted yesterday to the Managing Director’s Office on the implementation of new City Executive Order 5-17, The Declaration highlighted the data that must be posted online to allow the public to meaningfully understand how Philadelphia’s police accountability system functions.

Signed by Mayor Kenney last August, EO 5-17 requires the Police Department to make available online for the first time data about civilian complaints against police.

However, since other online police transparency initiatives have proved deficient so far, we submitted our comment to make sure officials include all data necessary to enable increased public understanding of police accountability in Philadelphia.

The necessary data include the full names of police officers against whom complaints are filed. EO 5-17 reversed decades of City policy, dating back to Mayor William Green’s 1980 Executive Order 1-80, to release officer names except in unusual circumstances.

Under the latest executive order, these names will be released to the public rarely or never.

The issue of naming police officers is controversial at the moment. The Fraternal Order of Police recently sued the City, asking a judge to bar officials from releasing the names of officers who shoot civilians.

The FOP also has a separate complaint pending before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to force the City to collectively bargain the release of the names of shooting officers, a policy instituted in 2015.

However, Court of Common Pleas Judge Daniel J. Anders recently denied the FOP’s motion to bar the release of names, finding that such a bar would harm the public interest in police transparency.

And while the PLRB complaint is still being adjudicated, Anders also determined that the FOP was not likely to win its argument that the policy to release officer names is a term or condition of employment over which the City is required to bargain, as opposed to a matter of management discretion.

In light Anders’ findings, we are again calling on officials to post online the full names of police officers against whom complaints are filed as a managerial policy decision to further the strong public interest in police transparency.

In many cities, a small core of problem officers are responsible for a large portion of police misconduct. In order to improve the system for dealing with this minority of problem officers who abuse the public trust, the public must first understand who the problem officers are.

Our comment also calls on the City to use online data postings to increase public access to the Police Board of Inquiry, which holds hearings and makes recommendations to the Police Commissioner on officer discipline in certain cases.

EO 5-17 strengthened public access to the PBI by clearly setting out the limited conditions in which the public may be barred from attending.

However, the PBI is still quite opaque. Currently, the only way for the public to discover when a hearing is scheduled is to call the Police Department’s Public Affairs Office, which is designed to handle media inquiries.

Even when the public can discover that a hearing is scheduled, the name of the officer, the nature of the allegations and the case number are not disclosed to anyone but those who can personally attend the hearing, located in a room with fewer than 10 spectator seats.

And even those who can attend may not be able to obtain further details of the case for weeks or months, even when they request information which is clearly public under Executive Order 5-17.

To remedy these serious shortcomings, the City must use the online data postings as a way for the public to track upcoming and past PBI cases, or come up with another method to do so. Without a public docket, the public is virtually in the dark about what occurs at the PBI, despite a paper guarantee of access.

As we said when Mayor Kenney initially signed this new executive order, we commend Mayor Kenney and his administration for being willing to address issues of police transparency, but more effort is needed.

To view all of our recommendations in the comment we submitted, click here.

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