Report: Less than 1% of civilian complaints filed against Philly police result in discipline

A forthcoming report from the city’s Police Advisory Commission found that citizen complaints more often result in training and counseling for the accused officer.

A Philadelphia police cruiser is parked between Arch and Market streets in West Philadelphia

A Philadelphia police cruiser is parked between Arch and Market streets in West Philadelphia on April 2, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Between 2015 and 2020, less than 1% of all citizen complaints filed against the Philadelphia Police Department resulted in an officer being formally disciplined, according to a new report obtained by WHYY.

Slated to be released next week by the city’s Police Advisory Commission, the report also found internal investigators did not uphold a single civil rights complaint filed by a resident, including accusations of racial profiling, during the same time period.

Additionally, the average internal affairs investigation into a citizen complaint took twice as long as the department’s required time limit of 90 days, researchers working with the PAC found.

“It highlights that the process is broken,” said Hans Menos, the former PAC executive director who is now vice president of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity. “The process is overly influenced by the police department and likely the [Fraternal Order of Police].”

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The stark findings come as Philadelphia prepares to replace the PAC, founded in 1994, with a more powerful Citizens Police Oversight Commission. Voters last November overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure giving lawmakers the green light to create the permanent and independent watchdog agency. Supporters hope it can help restore public trust in the nation’s fourth-largest police department.

Members of City Council will discuss legislation to define how the new commission works during a hearing on Monday, with hopes of passing the measure before the body breaks for summer recess.

The PAC report’s findings, which reflect the pro-bono work of academics at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, are based on an analysis of more than 9,000 allegations from more than 3,500 civilian complaints filed against PPD officers over the five-year period. Researchers consulted investigatory memos, disciplinary determinations, and public data.

The complaints were categorized as one of six types: criminal allegation, harassment, departmental violation, physical or sexual allegation, civil rights, and lack of service.

Between 2015 and 2020, the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigated the overwhelming majority of the citizen complaints that came across its desk, according to the report. But the majority of complaints were not sustained, meaning they were neither proved or disproved.

Of the complaints that were sustained, only 0.5% ultimately resulted in an officer being suspended for one or more days. The most severe penalty handed down to an officer was a 30-day suspension, according to the report.

Three-quarters of the sustained complaints were never considered by the city’s Police Board of Inquiry, which essentially determines whether an officer is guilty or not guilty of the alleged conduct. Instead, those cases resulted in an officer receiving training and counseling.

Roughly 2% of all sustained complaints resulted in a guilty verdict.

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A spokesperson with the Philadelphia Police Department declined to comment on the report’s findings on Friday.

“We are currently collaborating with the PAC on finalizing this report, and it would be inappropriate to comment before the report is released. Once the finalized report is made available, the department would be happy to discuss its contents,” said Public Information Officer Tanya Little.

New oversight body with investigative power — and a much bigger budget

The legislation to be heard Monday was introduced by Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. in February. It details the duties and powers of the Citizens Police Oversight Commission.

Under the bill, the commission would investigate all citizen complaints filed against officers and the Philadelphia Police Department. The body could then recommend discipline if it concluded the allegations were found to be true.

For the first time, the police commissioner would be required to respond to those recommendations in writing, and explain how and why the department treated the situation as it did.

CPOC would have the power to investigate allegations of physical abuse, bribery, corruption, intimidation, and harassment, as well as “any allegation that threatens the integrity of the criminal justice process.”

Under the measure, the commission could also make recommendations on any of the department’s policies and procedures, as well as hold a vote of no confidence regarding the police commissioner, another first.

“This is the beginning of a dialogue,” said Jones in February.

City Council and Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration are currently in talks about the language and content of the final version of the bill, which may influence the new commission’s budget.

The total proposed budget for CPOC in FY22 is $1,900,070 — roughly four times the current budget of the Police Advisory Commission.

“We are actively working with Council to develop a structure of the commission, and how the budget will align to support the goals of the organization,” city spokesperson Mike Dunn said last month. “The commission’s funding will enable it to fulfill its mandate and is independent of police funding.”

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