The civilian group that oversees the city’s police department is preparing to file a subpoena to obtain records about shootings involving Philadelphia police officers.
Kelvyn Anderson of the Police Advisory Commission said the group has, on numerous occasions, asked the department for detailed reports about every incident in which an officer fired a weapon, but the Philadelphia Police Department has denied those efforts.
This week, the commission unanimously voted to subpoena the department for the information.
A police spokesman said the department will comply with the subpoena.
Established in 1994 by then-Mayor Ed Rendell as a way to improve the sometimes-frayed community relations with law enforcement, the commission has the ability to subpoena the police department, a power found almost nowhere else among civilian groups.
Critics of the commission have noted that the group is understaffed, burdened by a heavy backlog of cases, and that their recommendations are toothless. Nonetheless, Anderson said, using the power of a subpoena could apply enough pressure to change what he sees as the department’s cagey reaction about releasing information.
“Leading the charge for transparency in this regard is a proper stance for us to take, and we frankly have to be aggressive about it. And that’s what we’re doing,” Anderson said.
Many families affected by police shootings, Anderson said, have approached him with frustration over obtaining public information on department investigations into shooting episodes.
“The details around police shootings need to be dealt with in a more open manner here in Philadelphia,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s push for transparency comes just as the U.S. Department of Justice prepares to release the first of three reports examining police-involved shootings in Philadelphia. The report was launched after Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey asked federal officials to look into the use of deadly weapons after the city witnessed a spike in fatal shootings by police in 2012.
The DOJ is scheduled to release the first report in two weeks, and Anderson said the commission is planning to review the federal findings before filing a subpoena.
“We don’t reach for the power just out of spite, or just to have something to do,” Anderson said. “But power unexercised is power unseen.”
One case that could turn up new information if the subpoena is successful involves the shooting death of Brandon Tate-Brown in December that has set off protests around the city, including public pronouncements from Tate-Brown’s mother who said police officers “had no intention of letting my son live.”
Police and advocates for Tate-Brown have offered sharply different accounts of what happened before an officer fatally shot Brown.
Both sides are disputing whether Tate-Brown did indeed have his car lights off, which is why police say they pulled him over.
Police also have said Tate-Brown was shot as he reached into the passenger side of his car to pick up a loaded gun, although Tate-Brown’s attorney told the Daily News that surveillance footage suggests that Tate-Brown was shot as he ran behind the trunk of the car.
Anderson said Tate-Brown’s case is just one of countless others in which the basic facts are in dispute.
Police spokesman John Stanford said the commission has worked with the department “in a reasonable capacity” over the years.
“If there is something that they wish to subpoena, then we will follow the guidelines of the court and our law department would respond accordingly,” Stanford said.