The Pennsylvania State Police are expected to soon investigate instances of Philadelphia officers discharging their weapons.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who retires next month as Philly’s top cop, said the two agencies have been working out the arrangement for months.
Ramsey announced the policy change Tuesday as officials from the U.S. Department of Justice gave a progress report of its probe into Philadelphia officers’ use of deadly force.
To guard against bias in the department’s own investigations of officer shootings, Ramsey said the State Police will serve as an independent review agency.
“It has nothing to do with our being capable of doing it,” Ramsey said. “But the perception is that it’s biased because it is internal. And our responsibility is to see to it that we can do as much as possible to guarantee to the public that it is objective.”
In 2013, Ramsey asked the Department of Justice for help with training after the number of officer-involved shootings rose sharply. That year, Philadelphia police shot and killed 11 people.
So far this year, two suspects have been fatally shot by police. In one incident, a suspect was attempting to rob a pizza shop when he was fatally wounded. In the other, members of the city’s SWAT team killed a suspect who had committed a murder.
More people have fired at police officers, however. There were six officers shot by civilians in 2013. This year, seven police officers have been injured by gunfire. In addition, Sgt. Robert Wilson was shot and killed in March during a robbery of a game shop in North Philly — the first officer killed in the line of duty since 2009.
“We need to lower all the numbers,” Ramsey said.
Of the 91 DOJ recommendations, 21 have been fully implemented and 61 are in motion. The remaining nine are stalled, federal officials reported Tuesday.
Ramsey said once State Police complete their transition as the lead investigative agency in city officer-involved shootings, the delayed reforms will start moving ahead.
State Police will not conduct investigations alone, though; members of the Philadelphia department’s internal affairs shooting team will have a secondary role, Ramsey said. But state officials will write the final report.
The other incomplete reforms are related to public information available on the department’s website.
“We are going to be more aggressive in terms of updating the website,” Ramsey said.
“Everybody wants transparency,” he said, adding that reporters want it for stories, while others ask for it to advance different causes. He said he’s opposed to releasing “blow by blow” information about cases as it happens, but instead waiting until an investigation is complete to make a public release.
Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross (right) talks about changes in the Philadelphia Police Department since a Department of Justice report was released six months ago. Ross will head the department when Commissioner Charles Ramsey (left) retires on Jan. 7. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
The DOJ event marked the first time Ramsey’s successor, Rich Ross, publicly backed identifying officers who use deadly force, something Ramsey proposed and has repeatedly defended. It’s also among the DOJ’s 91 recommendations.
“We’ve got one of the greatest police chiefs in the country. I mean, why would I chose to do anything different?” said Ross. “I believe that this law goes a long way towards transparency, it’s what people want.”
But a police union-backed bill in Harrisburg to keep the names of officers involved in deadly shootings under wraps is gaining traction. Ramsey said, it’s “very important” that the bill doesn’t pass.
Mayor Michael Nutter said most violence in Philadelphia stems from gun violence between civilians. So far this year, 270 people have been slain, up from the 240 killed in 2014.
“We need to stop shooting each other, killing each other, stabbing each other, on the streets of Philadelphia,” Nutter said.