Citizens have filed more than 3,350 complaints against Philadelphia police officers in the past five years, averaging about 760 a year, despite reforms intended to build better relationships between the department and the public.
Nearly two thirds of those complaints against police, known as CAPs, involved allegations of physical abuse, departmental violations and lack of service, according to the most recent semi-annual CAPs report. The rest involved claims of verbal abuse, harassment, unprofessional conduct, criminal allegations, no internal-affairs investigation, civil rights violations, domestic, sexual crime/misconduct, falsification, and drugs.
Just a fifth were ultimately sustained, leaving some watchdogs questioning how rigorously they were investigated.
“In my experience, they’ll sustain a minor claim that doesn’t get to the heart of what the person was complaining about. So then that low level of sustained complaints may mask an even lower level,” said David Rudovsky, a civil rights attorney who fights law enforcement abuses.
Still, he said, “I don’t think there’s a magic number for how many complaints should be sustained. What’s arguably more important is what happens once it is sustained: What kind of discipline is imposed, and how does the discipline stand up down the road, in terms of arbitration and that sort of thing?”
A police spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the data.
CAPs statistics are supposed to be “published” semi-annually by the department, although they’re not included in accountability data the department publishes online nor otherwise publicly released, unless a citizen specifically requests them, a police spokesman said last month.
CAPs are public record, though, and one reformer in October started the Philadelphia Police Accountability Project – a publicly accessible database of CAPs – to increase transparency around officer misconduct.
Dustin Slaughter, who launched the project on the independent news website The Declaration, called the CAPs report “fairly anemic” and questioned its usefulness, both to brass looking to learn from CAPs trends and to watchdogs hoping to use such data to drive reform efforts.
“While it’s useful to see how many CAPs the department received, as well as the nature of those complaints, there’s no way to determine which categories have the most sustained complaints, nor the districts where the most complaints are being filed,” Slaughter said.
Departmental policy allows Internal Affairs to release just five years of CAPs, so it also can be difficult to determine long-term trends. The most recent report shows CAPs hovered in the 700s in the past five years, ranging from 730 in 2012 to 792 last year.
When misconduct and corruption claims arise, most departments, at least initially, investigate the allegations themselves, a trend that has sparked concerns about bias and calls nationally for outside, independent investigation.
“Any situation where the fox is guarding the hen house is cause for some concern,” Slaughter said. “We should wonder if there would be more sustained complaints if we had a full and fairly funded Police Advisory Commission.”
That citizen-helmed watchdog group has just three investigators to probe hundreds of cases and uncover systemic problems, the commission’s executive director Kelvyn Anderson said.
The group’s funding – just under $300,000 a year – is 25 percent less than it was when the city created it in 1993, he added.
Anderson didn’t find the CAPs report especially illuminating either, saying it lacked demographic details that could point to abuses.
“It doesn’t tell us enough about either the complaintants themselves or the officers who are the subject of the complaints,” Anderson said. “Where are the complaints being filed? Are there districts where physical abuse complaints are going up? Are there a small number of officers driving a large number of complaints? How do complaints relate to stop-and-frisk data? If we don’t know more information beyond the raw number of complaints and their dispositions, it doesn’t really give us a sense of what this means on the ground. It’s a start, I suppose, but it’s not adequate for the public to make any useful conclusions about what is going on.”
Some other cities, such as Chicago where only 4 percent of nearly 56,500 complaints on record were sustained, do publicly release such demographic details for analysis.