Federal review of Philadelphia police could hold lesson for Baltimore

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey during news conference at Philadelphia Police headquarters in Aug. 2010.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey during news conference at Philadelphia Police headquarters in Aug. 2010. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/Philadelphia Inquirer)

PHILADELPHIA — As community anger raged last year from officer-involved shootings, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey read that a new U.S. Department of Justice program could help reduce shootings and other excessive-force complaints.

After scrutinizing the initial findings of a federal review of the Las Vegas Police Department, he sought help for the nation's fourth-largest police force. His agency was under fire because 65 residents had been killed by police from 2009 to 2013.


Now, 11 months after the Justice Department intervened to help curb abuses in Philadelphia, Ramsey has a list of recommendations that federal officials and outside consultants developed following interviews with community members, officers and public officials. It offers clues about Baltimore's review, which is in its early stages.

"It's going to have a very positive impact on our department, short- and long-term," Ramsey said about the draft report during a wide-ranging interview in his office last week. "There is absolutely nothing there that gives me heartburn at all. It's beneficial."


In October, officials in Baltimore announced that it would become the third major city to get the Justice Department's help — a move made to address allegations of police brutality.

A recent Baltimore Sun investigation showed that residents have suffered broken bones and battered faces during arrests, and the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police brutality since 2011. Nearly all of the victims in incidents that sparked the lawsuits were cleared of criminal charges.

The Sun also found that some Baltimore officers were involved in multiple lawsuits, and there were significant gaps in the systems used to monitor misconduct in the Police Department. In the aftermath of The Sun's investigation, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts requested federal help to reform the department.

The federal probes — called collaborative reviews — help police departments curb excessive-force abuses and develop strategies to rebuild relationships with residents. Reviews are also underway in three smaller police departments across the country.


The Justice Department's work in Philadelphia began in December 2013 and could lead to a final report sometime next year. In the coming weeks, Ramsey said, he and his top commanders will examine the draft report to determine the best ways to enact recommendations.

Most findings deal with training and how the agency investigates police shootings, Ramsey said. The report contains "quite a few" major recommendations, but only a few will cost money, he said.

"We will go through it and set a timeline," he said, adding that a few changes might need to be negotiated with the police union.

As in Las Vegas, federal officials and outside consultants held public meetings and had access to all Philadelphia police files.

A member of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, a citizens' group, said residents spoke emotionally for several hours at a public forum held by federal officials.

The officials "took a lot of heat from the audience," said Ronda Goldfein, an attorney and also a board member at the Pennsylvania ACLU. "They heard from angry and heartbroken parents whose kids were killed by police."

Now that a draft report has been completed, community leaders are eager to read the findings.

Goldfein described Ramsey's request for help "as an important first step" in improving the department's image. But she cautioned that the recommendations must be substantive or they could "inflame the ill will" in the community.

Some of the department's problems stem from collective bargaining agreements — arbitrators have returned some officers to work after Ramsey had fired them for misconduct, Goldfein added.

The union, Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5, did not respond to a request for comment.

Some of the changes coming to Philadelphia are similar to those being highlighted by police officials and activists in Las Vegas. They include training to de-escalate tense situations and to eliminate biases that officers may carry against minorities.

Ramsey is also excited about reality-based training, in which officers use role-playing to practice arrests and other potentially volatile actions. For example, officers are graded on the force they use to subdue a suspect and how they control the situation.

"You learn through doing," Ramsey said. "Everything is not a gun battle. … What you don't want to be is gasoline on the fire."

From 2009 to 2013, Philadelphia officers discharged their weapons in 256 incidents, resulting in the 65 fatalities and another 155 injuries, records show. This year, by contrast, officers have fired their guns 15 times, killing three and injuring 13.

Baltimore, whose police force is less than half the size of Philadelphia's, has had 22 fatalities in 52 police shootings since 2011.

Other similarities exist between Las Vegas and Philadelphia.

Las Vegas police officials said that police-involved shootings jumped after officers were killed on duty. Ramsey, whose office has large photos of seven officers who died in the line of duty during his command, said he found the same problem in Philadelphia, as well as an overall increase in the use of force.

Asked why he keeps the photos on the wall behind him, Ramsey said, "It's a place to honor and remember them. They're looking over my shoulder. The decisions that we make in this room can put people in harm's way. It's a reminder to me that our decisions have to be carefully thought out."

In order to transform a police department, federal officials have said police leaders need to be transparent, engaging and accountable.

Asked to define transparency for his department, Ramsey said, "Getting information out to the public. The public needs to understand the process that is used when there is an officer-involved shooting." He also said leaders need to provide information to dispel rumors and to prevent the "court of public opinion or the media" from driving the facts of a case.

Ramsey pointed to another step taken in the last year: The department posted summaries of every police shooting since 2007 on its website.

"We did it without anyone asking us to do it," he said, "We thought it was the right thing to do."

Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, agreed.

"We consider it a good, starting effort," Anderson said, noting that until a year ago, few details were released publicly on police shootings.

The Philadelphia department's lack of transparency has been an issue for many years, but a shift to be more open started before federal officials intervened, Anderson said. Overall, the community has been pleased with the review, he said, adding, "It will give the public a lot of information."

As stakeholders wait for the draft report and final report, Justice Department officials caution that it could take several years to change the culture of a police force. Ramsey says training, education and strong policies are required.


Not much resistance occurred when the review was announced in Philadelphia, officials said.


Ramsey dismissed concerns from Baltimore's union leaders about the federal review. They have said that officers will be hesitant to act, fearing they will be second-guessed by outside consultants.

When the review was announced in Philadelphia, Ramsey said, the department's 6,500 officers were sent email links to the report about the findings in Las Vegas.

"Cops are always leery of something," Ramsey said. "We did as much as we could to alleviate any concerns and fears."


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