The ink had barely dried on a U.S. Department of Justice report made public on March 23 citing excessive police shootings in Philadelphia when police shot and wounded a 24-year-old man as he ran from them on March 24.
The DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) report is entitled “Collaborative Reform Initiative: An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department.” (tinyurl.com/nnaj7oc) It documents patterns of the PPD’s use of deadly force and other questionable practices from 2007 to 2013. The report cites a lack of transparency in the department’s shooting review process and criticizes its inadequate training.
Specifically, a provision of the PPD’s existing “use of deadly force” policies prohibits officers from firing at fleeing individuals to subdue them, yet that is what happened on March 24. The DOJ found 394 officer-involved shootings in Philadelphia — averaging one per week — in the seven-year period. Some 540 officers, the majority white men, fired their guns; 68 were involved in multiple shootings. In nearly 3-in-10 shootings, two or more police officers were involved. Fifty-nine victims were unarmed.
The report asserts “significant strife between the community and the department.” More than 90 percent of the people shot by police were Black, Latino or Latina, averaging 20 years of age but as young as 13. Given these statistics, it appears that “a state sponsored war against Black and Brown youth” more accurately describes this crisis.
The report concludes that the PPD’s use-of-force policies are “fragmented, vague and confusing” to officers and need revising. It recommends that officers be given “de-escalation” training, with increased training for veteran officers to include instruction on “unconscious bias.” The assessment further suggests combining the two boards that review police shootings and including “at least one community member.”
Lack of transparency
The COPS review describes “significant contention between the city’s external oversight Police Advisory Commission and the PPD regarding access to data and files.” The PPD has refused to comply with Police Advisory Commission requests made in 2013 to release data on these shootings.
DOJ investigators were provided with “various sets of data available from the PPD, including use-of-force data, ‘officer-involved shooting’ investigative files, police board of inquiry hearings and findings, and recruit academy course evaluations”
Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey stonewalled requests from PAC Executive Director Kelvyn Anderson for these data. Calling for the DOJ report to be made public, Anderson noted a “huge disconnect” between the PPD’s current policy and the recommendations for transparency. The study recommends that the PAC have access to “all pertinent documentation related to an [officer-involved shooting] investigation” but stops short of calling for an independent civilian review board of the police or an independent prosecutor — two key demands raised by the anti-police brutality movement.
The COPS report does not address inadequate funding of the advisory board. Since its creation, the PAC has lacked necessary funding to hire adequate investigatory staff or to purchase technical support to analyze data. Its annual budget is around $225,000 – one-eighth that of the police oversight board in Washington, D.C., which annually receives $2 million. Philadelphia’s population is 1.5 million, while Washington’s is 659,000.
While many cities’ police departments publicize their investigative reports after reviews are completed, this is not so in Philadelphia, where the PPD still refuses to release the names of officers involved. This is a key concern of protesters who have demanded the names of officers who fatally shot Brandon Tate-Brown on Dec. 15. His family has also called for the PPD to release surveillance video of the shooting.
Police departments are quick to broadcast victims’ arrest or conviction histories, as if this somehow justifies officers’ use of deadly force. Yet it is often the police themselves who have histories of abuse which the departments have kept hidden. Kevin Robinson and Sean McKnight, the PPD officers recently indicted for brutally beating Najee Rivera in 2013, each had seven prior complaints of abuse listed in internal PPD records.
The DOJ report was requested by Commissioner Ramsey in 2013 and is largely an advisory document. While there are provisions for follow-up, the DOJ has no means to enforce recommendations since the study was “voluntary” by the PPD. Simply introducing some minor reforms does not address the real issues.
Police departments like Philadelphia’s serve as occupation forces to maintain exploitation of oppressed communities and to keep them from rising up against the capitalist system.