Friday, March 27, 2015

Deadly Force in Philadelphia
New York Times
MARCH 26, 2015

In 1994, three years after the country viewed the infamous video of Los Angeles police officers brutalizing Rodney King, a black motorist, Congress gave the Justice Department the power to restructure police departments engaged in unconstitutional practices.

Federal officials have exercised that power several times since then, but, over the last five years, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has been particularly aggressive. His office has opened 20 investigations into local police department practices — including in Ferguson, Mo., where a federal report earlier this month uncovered proof of unconstitutional, racially biased policing. And Justice Department officials are currently enforcing reform agreements with 15 police departments, some of which were investigated by previous administrations using the same authority.

Mr. Holder has also created a voluntary program under which police departments that want to remedy systemic problems like biased enforcement or excessive use of deadly force can seek assistance from the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which then pays for a detailed evaluation that includes recommendations for reform.

A report released earlier this week on the historically troubled Philadelphia Police Department shows both the virtues of the reform program and the steep challenge police departments face even when they actually want to correct dangerous practices.

Philadelphia’s department has a vivid history of serious malfeasance, dating to at least 1979, when the Justice Department sued the city over police brutality. Six years later, during a standoff with a radical political group, a State Police helicopter dropped a bomb on a house. The resulting conflagrations killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes. More recently, police officers have been videotaped beating and punching people, which has further alienated them from an increasingly nervous and even hostile public.

In 2013, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey turned to the Justice Department for guidance — and answers — after the news website revealed that even though Philadelphia’s crime rates had declined, police officers were firing guns at suspects more frequently.

The evaluation team brought in by the Justice Department reported that, between 2007 and 2014, police officers opened fire at suspects more than 390 times. The team did not make a judgment about whether the police were firing too often. But it found basic design problems with a lethal-force policy that Philadelphia’s police had always assumed was properly protective of public safety. The team ended up making an astonishing 91 different recommendations for improving departmental practices.

One was to greatly improve training to show “students not only when and how to use force, but when and how not to use force and to de-escalate, verbally and tactically, if appropriate.” The report also found that the department’s guidance on the use of deadly force was “fragmented” and confusing, particularly for newer officers who were trying to understand a byzantine system.

In addition, the report asked the department to greatly strengthen its own internal investigative apparatus so as to more quickly discipline officers who act irresponsibly or break departmental rules. The report found that officers involved in shootings are, for the most part, not interviewed until three or more months after the incident. The department’s inability to handle these matters efficiently and transparently has created what the report calls “an undercurrent of significant strife” between the community and its police.

The Philadelphia Police Department will obviously need to rebuild its policies from the ground up. Though its participation in the reform effort is voluntary, failure to take reform seriously could leave it open not only to further complaints from citizens but also legal action by the federal government. What the department has going for it is Washington’s willingness to help with the reforms. That, as much as the pressure the Justice Department brings to bear, is what makes Mr. Holder’s strategy so welcome.

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