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Justice Department Makes 91 Recommendations to Reform Philadelphia's 'Deadly' Police Practices

A long-awaited U.S. Justice Department report on police shootings in Philadelphia concluded Monday that there is "significant strife between the community and the department," and recommended wholesale changes in procedures and training.

By Dylan Purcell, Aubrey Whelan and Mark Fazlollah

A long-awaited U.S. Justice Department report on police shootings in Philadelphia concluded Monday that there is "significant strife between the community and the department," and recommended wholesale changes in procedures and training.

The federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, issued 48 findings and 91 recommendations for the Philadelphia department to consider in "reforming its deadly force practices."

Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey pledged to move "as quickly as we can" to come up with a plan to implement the recommendations.

"We certainly are looking at each and every one, and coming up with a strategy for each recommendation," he told reporters.

Some of those changes, he said, were underway.

After police shootings soared in 2012, prompting numerous civil rights lawsuits, Ramsey asked the Justice Department to conduct the study under its "Collaborative Reform" model to improve relations with the public.

Philadelphia is only the third city in the country to have undergone this kind of review. Justice officials stressed that Ramsey himself asked them to come to Philadelphia.

"I've never pretended to have all the answers," he said, adding that independent reviews like this are key to identifying needed reforms.

Much of the report echoed criticisms raised for years in community meetings, past audits of the department and lawsuits against the city.

A December 2003 report by the city's Integrity and Accountability Office _ five years before Ramsey took office _ stated that the police disciplinary system was "ineffective, inadequate and unpredictable."

Paul Messing, a Temple University Law School professor and civil rights lawyer, said the report "confirmed what we've known for years" _ that the department's disciplinary process has "a complete lack of teeth."

The Justice Department's report also criticized police policies on use of force, calling them confusing and inconsistent. The main directive on using deadly force was deemed "too vague," the report said.

It noted that under current rules, an officer who had violated its deadly force policy three times could get off with only a reprimand. And it found that the department's investigations of officer-involved shootings had "a general lack of consistency in quality."

The report called for a specialized unit to investigate such cases. It also recommended that officers involved in shootings be interviewed by investigators soon after the incident. Now, those officers are interviewed only after the district attorney's investigation into the matter is concluded, which can take months.

Written by the nonprofit Virginia-based CNA Corp., the report said officers need alternatives to shooting people in deadly confrontations.

In interviews with Justice Department investigators, many Philadelphia officers themselves said they wanted more comprehensive training.

The report noted that recruits are not trained on the use of nonlethal methods, such as Tasers, and officers are not required to carry pepper spray.

Training for when to discharge a weapon is "too infrequent, lacks the appropriate concepts and, at times, lacks standards," the 174-page report stated.

Overall, it said, the training sometimes "leaves officers inadequately prepared to make decisions in an increasingly complex environment." It said additional training also should include instruction on peaceful resolutions of conflict.

COPS Director Ron Davis said such training problems are present in departments across the country. It's an aspect of officer training that should be "fundamental," he said _ and Philadelphia's deficiencies in that area are "not unique."

The report also addressed the department's transparency in officer-involved shootings, encouraging police to release more detailed accounts of shootings and to institute an independent review board to review the shootings of unarmed suspects, as Ramsey has recommended as part of the presidential policing task force heads.

Most notably, it said, the Police Department "does not fully accommodate" the city's Police Advisory Commission in its role of providing oversight. The report called for police to provide "important documentation, investigative files and data related to all uses of force."

Ramsey said he plans to meet soon with Kelvyn Anderson, the Advisory Commission's executive director, to discuss Anderson's requests to release police data on officer-involved shootings and complaints. He said the department already releases some of that information on its website, but acknowledged that "more work needs to be done."

Anderson said that although he had a request in for information about shootings, he had received no reply from the department in recent weeks.

At times, he said, he felt like the proverbial mushroom: kept in the dark and fed manure. He noted that in some other cities, police make public their investigation reports after they finish reviews of shootings. The reports in other cities contain the name of the officers involved in the shootings. But not in Philadelphia.

"Those reports should be public," Anderson said, stressing that there is "a huge disconnect" between the department's current policy and the recommendation for transparency.

The report also noted significant distrust between community members and the police.

"Incidents involving discourtesy, use of force and allegations of bias by officers leave segments of the community feeling disenfranchised and distrustful of the Police Department," stated the report, conducted by the Justice Department's policing arm.

"Distrust in the ability of the (Police Department) to investigate itself pervades segments of the community. Scandals of the past and present, high-profile (shooting) incidents, and a lack of transparency in investigative outcomes help cement this distrust."

Indeed, a handful of protesters gathered outside Justice Department headquarters as Monday's news conference concluded, chanting, "No justice, no peace," and, "Who killed Brandon Tate-Brown?", referring to the 25-year-old Frankford man killed by police during a traffic stop last year.

Asa Khalif, Brown's cousin and president of the activist group Racial Unity, said he was "glad I didn't have my breakfast before I read" the report.

"It's nothing we haven't known," he said, adding that he was thankful Ramsey had agreed to meet with him. Khalif said protests in his cousin's name would continue.

Representatives from the faith-based community group Power said that they were encouraged by the report but that the department needs to work to implement its recommendations.

"This is a great prescriptive document, but it's like a diet," said the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church. "If you don't use the diet, it's not going to take the weight off."

Mayor Michael Nutter, speaking at Monday's news conference, said that the report's recommendations will take time to implement _ and that his successor will have to take up the mantle of police reform.

"We will do all we can during our time, but we will hand off a road map" for departmental changes to the next administration, Nutter said. He and Ramsey both said their efforts to reform the department had been ongoing since they arrived in office in 2008.

And the COPS office itself will not cut ties with Philadelphia now that the report has been released, federal officials said.

It has pledged to return in six months and again in a year to issue progress reports.

The police union had no immediate comment.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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