The number of deaths by Philadelphia police gunfire between 2011 and 2013 equates to over 5% of all Philadelphia homicides by firearm during that period. Newly released FBI data shows that, nationwide, the number of justifiable homicides by law officers equates to about 1% of all homicides by firearm in that same three-year span. Despite the relatively high ratio of deaths by police gunfire to homicides by Philadelphia civilians, police oversight here remains relatively weak.
How so? To start, consider how the city handles private lawsuits against police officers for misconduct. A 2010 survey of 26 police departments in comparably sized cities found that Philadelphia’s is one of only three with
- no system by which it monitors lawsuits for early warning signs of police misconduct,
- no policy for tracing trends in misconduct across cases and departments,
- no ability to investigate claims against officers aside from criminal hearings,
- no ability to discipline or fire officers after a court verdict mandates disciplinary action against them and
- no ability to reopen litigation files when devising new police misconduct policies.
What about the police department’s own internal controls? Deputy Solicitor Craig Straw of the Philadelphia Law Department’s Civil Rights Unit in the above-cited article says the city’s Internal Affairs Division investigates about half of all suits filed against police officers in a given year. Straw also said officers rarely face disciplinary action absent a Division investigation.
The Division has received 26 police misconduct complaints thus far in 2014, according to a December Police Advisory Commission (PAC) memo. The Division now has 45 open misconduct investigations, some of which date back to 2012, and the majority of which are over 120 days old.
Add to that total 13 investigations by the PAC, an independent oversight organization comprised of non-officers, that resulted in the discipline of officers between 2011 and 2013.
The sheer number of deaths by officer discharge reported in recent years rivals the number of misconduct cases resolved by both of Philadelphia’s police oversight agencies combined.
Neither of these agencies are permitted to investigate any incident once a complainant files a misconduct suit. Terse statutes of limitations on complaint filings mean victims of police abuse may choose either private legal recourse or whatever results an investigation by an oversight agency may produce, but not both.
How did things get this way? Why do they stay this way?
At least part of the reason is that while the Philadelphia Police Department imposes arguably lax monitors and controls on officer misconduct, it also maintains a handsomely funded and politico-legally aggressive union. Lodge 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police reported revenues exceeding $6.03 million in 2013 and spent well over $2 million on legal representation that year alone if you include expenditures by their legal trust fund.
To put the size of this organization in context, Lodge 5 spends only a few thousand dollars more a year on parking than the PAC receives from the city each year for legal representation. This is significant because Lodge 5 has for decades taken legal action to hinder and/or attack the Commission and organizations like it at almost every possible opportunity.
Philadelphia’s police union brought several lawsuits that contributed to the dissolution of an older, less formal civilian police oversight committee in 1969. Lodge 5 sued again in the mid-1990s, hoping to dismantle the current PAC soon after it first formed, “alleging that the [C]ommission was created and operated in violation of the City Charter and the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act,” according to a case summary. Lodge 5 has sued the PAC several more times since then under other pretenses.
The most recent example of such legal action: Lieutenant Jonathan Josey lost his job after he allegedly struck and arrested Aida Guzman at the 2012 Puerto Rican Day Parade in Kensington. A bystander recorded the incident with a mobile phone and uploaded it to Youtube.
Josey’s defense used a frame-by-frame analysis of that video to win him an acquittal when his case went into arbitration. He ultimately regained his position on the force. The PAC later subpoenaed a copy of that analysis. Lodge 5 filed—unsuccessfully—in Common Pleas Court in an attempt to block them from doing so.
On the political end, Philadelphia’s police union has made almost $74,000 in donations to city officials since 2012:
|Political Donations by Lodge 5||$21,535||$25,360||$27,075|
Source: Pennsylvania Department of State.
Several City Council members have recently accepted donations from the police union, including some of the same members now arguing for better police oversight. Likewise, Lodge 5 has given at least $5,000 to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane since 2013. This is relevant because attorneys general typically oversee police misconduct investigations alongside local internal affairs offices and groups like the PAC.
Philadelphia police will soon gain more political power. A federal court this August overturned a rule that forbade city police by threat of fine, termination and possible imprisonment from donating to “COPPAC.” COPPAC is a political action fund that serves police interest. In the wake of that August decision, 6,624 Philadelphia officers may now freely donate to the fund.
Is there any good news for law enforcement oversight advocates? Some.
Councilman Curtis Jones proposed new legislation this September, which would make the PAC a more permanent fixture by re-writing the legislation that undergirds it as a bona fide law. The Commission exists now only as the result of a 1993 mayoral order.
Jones’ bill would also guarantee the PAC a million dollar budget for the first two years of its on-the-books existence, expanding it to roughly 1/6th of Lodge 5’s budget. The Commission currently operates on an annual $389,000.
Pending Council’s approval, the bill will face a citywide vote in May of 2015. PAC executive director Kelvin Anderson during the PAC’s December meeting said the measure has thus far received seven Council signatures, and that he expects it to move forward.
Anderson added that it would please him in the long term if the Commission received what comparable agencies in cities like Chicago do: enough resources to properly train employees and better cooperation from city government to the extent that they could observe police work as it happens.