Conducting outside investigations of police-involved shootings is a widely endorsed police reform, and was arguably the biggest reform federal authorities recommended in a 2015 report on curbing cops’ use of deadly force in Philadelphia.
Yet city officials have found it easier said than done. With the police union balking, Philadelphia police brass have abandoned efforts to have Pennsylvania State Police probe shootings by city cops and instead created an internal Officer Involved Shooting Incident Unit, police Commissioner Richard Ross said Friday.
The new unit, comprising a captain, three sergeants and eight detectives, will handle the administrative investigation, keeping an eye out for mistakes or policy violations that might warrant internal remedies or discipline, Ross said. The District Attorney’s Office will separately investigate for violations of criminal law, he added.
Ross announced the new unit during a news conference Friday. He, Mayor Kenney and federal authorities updated reporters at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Center City on progress the city has made on implementing 91 recommendations the federal Justice Department made in 2015 to reduce the department’s deadly force incidents and police-involved shootings. Then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in 2013 asked federal authorities to review department policies and recommend reforms after police shot at almost 100 people in 59 incidents in 2012. (Reforms have helped reverse that trend, with 23 police-involved shooting incidents involving 44 people in 2016, according to police data.)
Philadelphia police officials have implemented nearly all – 91 percent – of the 91 recommendations the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services issued in its 2015 report, COPS director Ronald Davis said. A final progress report is expected within the next few weeks, Davis added.
“We will never get comfortable. This does not mean that we feel like we are at the finish line,” Ross said. “But hopefully this will help demonstrate that we are willing to roll up our sleeves (and embrace reforms).”
Of the lack of outside investigation, Davis described Ross’ new unit as “an alternative that does try to meet that goal.”
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 leaders considered outside investigation a violation of the union’s labor agreement. Police brass also worried any outside agency might lack the expertise and ability to scramble to a scene quickly, considering the Philadelphia force – with 6,100 officers – is the biggest around, Ross added.
Beyond investigation, the report also recommended beefing up the Police Advisory Commission, the civilian-led watchdog. And Mayor Kenney Friday said the city has boosted annual funding to the commission, whose nearly $300,000 budget is 25 percent less than it was when the city created it in 1993, by $125,000. He also issued an executive order aimed at strengthening the commission.
Reformers cautiously applauded news of the reforms’ progress.
“There are a few things left to be done, but overall, the willingness to engage in reform here and in other areas around the country should be encouraging, no matter who is sitting in the attorney general’s position,” said Kelvyn Anderson, who heads the Police Advisory Commission.
Police watchdogs have expressed concerns that a Justice Department under Jeffrey Sessions, President-Elect Trump’s pick for Attorney General, will be less aggressive in enforcing policing reforms.