In Philadelphia, a Change Meant to Increase Police Transparency Actually Does the Opposite

by | March 5, 2018

By Mark Fazlollah and William Bender

When Mayor Kenney signed an executive order in August to post online civilian complaints against Philadelphia police officers, he touted it as a "commonsense reform" that would build trust between the Police Department and the communities it serves.

"This data will show residents in an easily accessible, online format how the city handles complaints against police officers," Kenney said in a statement.

Just don't ask which police officers.

As it turns out, the policy reversed a decades-old practice by the city that treated closed investigations as public records, complete with the names of officers and the citizens who filed the complaints.

The Kenney administration, in consultation with police brass, inserted language into the executive order to remove those names, among other information.

Officers who are subjects of the complaints are identified only by first and last initials, or sometimes only first initials. Other officers are anonymous.

"This is a bold attempt by the Police Department to shield itself from public scrutiny and the potential of outside agencies to investigate accusations of police misconduct," said civil-rights attorney Paul J. Hetznecker.

Since the executive order went into effect in November, the Police Department has been reluctant -- or has refused -- to identify officers who are the subject of complaints.

Brian Abernathy, the city's first deputy managing director, defended the changes.

"Our hope was by putting it online, people would have access to it. It could be searchable," Abernathy said, adding, "It's not an effort to hide information."

Abernathy contended that Internal Affairs should always have been redacting officers' names.

That, however, was not spelled out in executive orders signed by Mayor Ed Rendell in 1993 and Mayor Michael Nutter in 2011. Those orders, which covered the processing of civilian complaints, stated that the city should not release information that "would operate to the prejudice or impairment of a person's reputation or security." The orders offer, as examples, medical records and information that would compromise an investigation.

Kenney's executive order expanded the scope of redacted information to specifically include "first and last names of complainants, witnesses, victims and police officers, except for initials."

Abernathy and Kenney's spokesman, Mike Dunn, said this week that Internal Affairs, under the new policy, would continue to provide complaint case numbers if a reporter sought complaints against a specific officer. The reporter could then tie redacted complaint files to individual officers. In January, Internal Affairs provided those numbers to the Inquirer and Daily News after initially denying the request. More recently, the Police Department has denied similar requests from other media outlets.

Capt. Francis Healy, a legal adviser to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, said it was necessary to delete the names of the officers in order to post additional disciplinary information online. City policy is to not share details of disciplinary outcomes by name, according to Abernathy.

"It's a change for the better," Healy said.

For years, the department provided mostly unredacted versions of the complaints, including the names of officers and complainants.

In 1995, for example, the Inquirer reviewed 2,000 civilian complaints over a five-year period, and reported that serious offenses were often given minimal punishment.

The article noted that one officer, Carl W. Holmes Jr., was found guilty of beating a man who had undergone a kidney transplant. The city then paid $27,500 to settle a suit filed by the man, and Holmes was given a five-day suspension. Since then, Holmes has repeatedly been sued for alleged abuse, with a $1.25 million settlement last year in a case in which a woman said Holmes sexually assaulted her.

Holmes now is a chief inspector, the fourth highest rank in the department.

In 2009, the Daily News reported that then-Officer Frank Tepper had been involved in seven complaints investigated by Internal Affairs. The newspaper was able to obtain the complaints and interview those who filed them. Tepper was later convicted of murder for shooting a man while off duty.

"It would be impossible to conduct an independent investigation without the names," said civil rights attorney Paul Messing, whose firm has sued the city in police misconduct cases. "This all needs a public airing."

In 2014, the Inquirer requested the case file for then-Officer Kevin Corcoran and found that Internal Affairs had repeatedly investigated him -- six times in 2009 alone -- over nearly a decade for alleged police brutality and other reported incidents. Corcoran was sued four times for excessive force, resulting in two city settlements, and was later convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with the undocumented arrest of an Iraq War veteran.

Under Kenney's new policy, it is unclear whether those files are still considered public record. Police and city officials have provided shifting explanations of what information will be available to the media and the public.

Healy said redacting information from complaints had been straining police staff in recent years. The new system essentially automates that process.

Abernathy said the executive order was crafted by himself and Healy, with input from police, the Managing Director's Office and the mayor's office. Healy said there were no public meetings or consultation with community representatives.

"Of course they didn't ask the community," said Deandra Jefferson, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic and Legal Justice. She said the department appeared to be formalizing "the code of silence that they already had."

Ironically, the city is now withholding officers' names in Internal Affairs reports at the same time it has gone to court to defend its policy of identifying officers who shoot people --  whether or not the shooting is determined to be justified.

The Rev. Mark K. Tyler, a community activist and pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church, said he found that unusual. He said the new policy may have been implemented without bad intentions, but he would have liked community involvement.

"It's odd that when everyone in the world is going for more transparency, to say, 'Let's give them less'," Tyler said. "I just don't get it."

Staff writers Samantha Melamed, Chris Palmer, and Aubrey Whelan contributed to this article.

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