Justice Department Finds Shootings by Police Officers in Philadelphia Are Common

Ronald Davis, right, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey discussed the findings of the Justice Department's report during a news conference on Monday in Philadelphia. (PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
Ronald Davis, right, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey discussed the findings of the Justice Department’s report during a news conference on Monday in Philadelphia. (PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Roughly once a week, 390 times over the past eight years, Philadelphia police officers opened fire at a suspect. The shootings involved 454 officers, most of them on patrol. Almost always, the suspects were black. Often, the officers were, too.

Fifty-nine suspects were unarmed. Officers frequently said they thought the men — and they were almost always men — were reaching for a weapon, when they were actually doing something like holding a cellphone.

The statistics were laid out in a Justice Department report on Monday, which does not allege racial discrimination but offers an unusually deep look at the use of lethal force inside a major city police department, including information on the race of officers and suspects. It is the kind of data that has been nearly absent from the debate over police tactics that began last summer with a deadly shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

Only a handful of major departments regularly publish statistics on police shootings, and those that do are not always consistent. That makes comparing the records of police departments difficult. But even with such spotty figures, Philadelphia stands out when compared with the public data in other cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In many years, Philadelphia saw more police shootings than New York, a city with five times the number of residents and officers.

“I want to express regrets for all who have been shot and killed in Philadelphia — civilian and police officers,” Mayor Michael A. Nutter said at a news conference Monday.

The report comes as tensions linger over the death of Brandon Tate-Brown, a 26-year-old Philadelphia man who was stopped in December for driving with his headlights off. The district attorney, R. Seth Williams, said Mr. Tate-Brown had been shot and killed while reaching for a gun in the car. Mr. Williams called it a “terrible tragedy, but not a crime.”

Last month, the Justice Department issued a scathing review of the Police Department in Ferguson, where, the authorities said, officers engaged in unconstitutional practices. In its tone and findings, the Philadelphia report is very different. It was conducted by federal experts who specialize in community-oriented policing, rather than federal prosecutors. And while the Ferguson report contains vivid anecdotes of ticket-fixing, racist emails and unwarranted arrests, the Philadelphia report is a simple, by-the-numbers accounting.

Philadelphia has one of the nation’s most turbulent histories of police violence and corruption. In 1979, the Justice Department sued the city over police brutality. Six years later, in a standoff with the radical group Move, the police dropped a bomb on a house and allowed the fire to burn for nearly an hour before trying to control it. Six adults and five children were killed and 250 people were left homeless after the fire destroyed 61 homes. More recently, police officers have been videotaped punching and beating people. Last month, two officers were arrested and accused of knocking a man off his scooter and beating him with their fists and batons.

“History does matter,” said Ronald L. Davis, the director of the Justice Department’s office that focuses on community-oriented policing. “That history can change people’s views with regards to trust.”

Charles H. Ramsey, Philadelphia’s police commissioner, requested the Justice Department inquiry after a Philadelphia Inquirer article in 2013 revealed that while crime was down, the number of officers firing at suspects was on the rise. At the time, Commissioner Ramsey said he considered the department’s policy on lethal force to be an industry “best practice.”

The Justice Department report, however, found repeated flaws. It describes a department where training is weak, oversight is spotty and shootings are all too frequent.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Matt Apuzzo

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