10 Takeaways From the Department of Justice Report on Philly Police

Feds reviewed increase in police-involved shootings as Philly crime dropped. Here's what they found.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. AP | Matt Rourke

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. AP | Matt Rourke

There is an “undercurrent of significant strife” between Philadelphia Police and the community they serve, the U.S. Department of Justice reported today.

The federal review — undertaken by the feds at the invitation of Commissioner Charles Ramsey, after reporting showed that police-involved shootings had risen despite an overall drop in the crime rate — found that police training in using less-than-lethal force was inconsistent and, at times, insufficient, and that a “lack of transparency” about such incidents had helped cement distrust in the community. 

Among the report’s recommendations: That the department bring in an independent investigative agency to review all incidents where police shoot unarmed persons. Suspects turned out to be unarmed in 15 percent of such shootings, the report said.

The Department of Justice will work with Philadelphia Police to implement the reforms over the next 18 months.

“The department has much work to do in the months and years ahead,” the report’s authors wrote. “Our assessment uncovered policy, training, and operational deficiencies in addition to an undercurrent of significant strife between the community and department.”

Despite the critiques, DOJ officials praised Ramsey for seeking out the report.

“The commissioner asked us to come in. This was not a federal mandate, not an investigation of the police department,” said Ronald Davis, director of Community Oriented Policing Services at the DOJ, which did the review. “I start off by applauding the leadership to have the courage … to take an introspective look.”

Mayor Michael Nutter also affirmed his faith in Ramsey. “Commissioner Ramsey, as usual, was in the forefront of trying to create change.”

But Nutter also sought to tamp down passions that have flared in recent weeks, both with the killing of officer Robert Wilson III, and with the announcement that no charges would be brought against officers involved in the December shooting of Brandon Tate-Brown.

“I want to express regrets for all who have been shot in Philadelphia, civilians or police officers. … Every life is precious in this city and this country, so we need to maintain this level of focus,” Nutter said. “We’re one big city. Everyone wants to be safe. Citizens want to be safe. Police officers want to be safe.”

Ramsey added: “It’s a good report with a lot of solid recommendations that — as the mayor mentioned — we’re in the process of implementing.”

Some highlights of the report:

The numbers: “Between 2007 and 2014, there were 394 OISs [officer-involved shootings] in the PPD, with an annual average of 49. The 22nd and 25th police districts of Philadelphia experienced the most OISs in our study period. ”

A breakdown of those numbers:

police shooting numbers

Officers are trained inconsistently on the department’s use of force policies: ” A small portion of the training is committed to the PPD’s policies. Firearm Training Unit (FTU) instructors rely on lectures for the use of force policy portion of the FTU; however, the lecture is not documented in any way. There are no guidelines, objectives, or lesson plans that detail PPD officer training on the department’s use of force policies. This means that lectures can vary widely in style, substance, and length, depending on the background and level of interest of the individual trainer. Officers are required to complete a 20-question multiple-choice exam on use of force at the completion of their annual firearms qualification, yet just one question pertains to deadly force.”

The public wants officers to hold each other accountable: “All employees of the PPD should be required to report any misconduct, including but not limited to excessive use of force. Community members we spoke with often commented on what they perceive as a code of silence among PPD officers when it comes to misconduct.44 Including an active requirement to report misconduct sends a message to members of the department and the community that the PPD will not tolerate complacency or outright coverups of misconduct amongst officers.”

The report recommends a more consistent regime of officer training. “PPD recruit training is not conducted in a systematic and modular fashion. As a result, some recruit classes receive firearms training close to the end of the academy while others receive it early on.”

Officers wish they were getting better and more training in how to handle violent encounters. “In our conversations with recruit graduates, patrol officers, and sergeants, we found that disappointment with the current state of defensive tactics (DT) instruction was nearly universal. First and foremost, our interview participants were dismayed by the lack of routine refresher training in defensive tactics. Interview participants generally thought that the defensive tactics training offered at the academy focused too much on legal liability and not enough on teaching practical and realistic methods for surviving a physical encounter. They did not believe that DT sufficiently prepared them for a physical encounter. Rather, DT partners were told to be compliant, which did not give recruits experience in handling a resistive subject. In general, interview participants wanted more realistic defensive tactics training, with less choreographed maneuvers.”

Officers want more practice on how to de-escalate tense situations. “The PPD officers we spoke with mostly recognized and appreciated the value of de-escalation training and practice in the field. Many wanted more of it. Recruit graduates wanted more scenarios and less observation. For example, although many of the scenarios involve student participation, not all students participate due to time restrictions, class size, or unwillingness of some recruits to volunteer. Scenarios were frequently cited as the most beneficial training, and academy and FTU evaluations indicated that recruits wanted more of them.”

The feds think Philly officers need to learn a broad range of de-escalation techniques. “Traditionally, de-escalation is discussed in terms of verbal persuasion tactics to use with subjects who are in an agitated state due to, say, a limited mental capacity, the influence of drugs or alcohol, or a temporary emotional crisis. Another way for the officer to slow down the action is to create distance (if possible), set a perimeter, request additional resources (e.g., less-lethal weapon, supervisor, crisis intervention team), and continually reassess whether they need to be in that situation (i.e., whether there is any threat and whether any laws have been broken). These actions can reduce the likelihood that officers will place themselves in a position of peril and therefore use deadly force unnecessarily. The PPD should include these methods in their lectures, discussions, and scenario training related to de-escalation.”

The investigation of officer-involved shootings is inconsistent. “Much of an OIS investigation is conducted by one of two units, which are vastly inconsistent in their approach. The homicide unit investigates fatal incidents and fields a team of six detectives to do so. The detective division investigates nonfatal incidents and fields a team of two detectives to do so. Notably, neither of these units has specialized training or experience in investigating OISs or any protocols in place for doing so. This distribution of investigative responsibilities can inhibit standardization across OIS investigations. Across all OIS investigations, we found a general lack of consistency in quality. Some investigations were very good and some were very poor.” The police department, the report found, should have an established unit to investigate such cases.

Investigators in police-involved shootings use old-fashioned ways of taking notes. In all major case investigations, including OISs, PPD investigators take what they refer to as “verbatim statements” via typed transcriptions. This means that an investigator is sitting at a computer, typing in questions and answers as they occur in real time. These statements are often not signed by the officer.157 The compelling concern with this practice is that the statements are not a verbatim recording of the information. Ultimately, responses will be summarized or rephrased when individuals without the skills and training or an actual stenographer are typing the transcriptions. This can lead to a number of issues, such as incompleteness, inaccuracies, or unintentional bias.” The DOJ recommends audio and video recording of all “critical” witness statements.

The community doesn’t always trust the police to police themselves. “Segments of the Philadelphia community do not trust the agency or any local partners to conduct a fair and objective investigation of OISs. 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. However, we believe that the department can take significant steps to build trust with disaffected communities in Philadelphia.” Among the recommendations? That independent agencies review police-involved shootings involving unarmed suspects.

The full report is below.

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