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Takeaways From The Federal Report On Deadly Force By Philadelphia Cops

Two years ago, Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia's police commissioner, called for a federal review of the city's police practices. Ramsey called for a similar federal inquiry during his tenure as police chief in Washington, D.C.
Matt Rourke
Two years ago, Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia's police commissioner, called for a federal review of the city's police practices. Ramsey called for a similar federal inquiry during his tenure as police chief in Washington, D.C.

Even before the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., or the Eric Garner incident in New York City last summer, Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia's police commissioner, called on the federal government to look into how the officers in his department used force, and how their use of force might contribute to the department's often strained relationship with the city's residents.

After crunching several years of data on police use of force and conducting dozens of interviews there, the Justice Department releasedits report on the Philadelphia Police Department on Monday. The report was notably less scathing than recent federal reviews of cities like Newark. N.J., and Ferguson — no accusations of widespread bias or profiling of black suspects — but it still found "uncovered policy, training, and operational deficiencies in addition to an undercurrent of significant strife between the community and department."

The report comes at at time when tensions between residents and officers are especially pronounced following the police shooting of a black motorist; the officer in the incident was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Here are a few takeaways from the report that grabbed our attention. (You can read the report here.)

The share of police shootings that involve unarmed suspects is creeping up

The researchers found that between 2007 and 2013, Philly averaged about 50 officer-involved shootings a year, or about one shooting a week. As the New York Times points out, in some years that meant there were more police-involved shootings in Philly than New York City, a city with five times as many residents and officers.

And as the number of officer-involved shootings has ticked up, the percentage of those police-involved shootings in which the suspect was unarmed has also risen: from just 6 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2013.

Another interesting tidbit: Over the years the Justice Department examined, there was a general decline in the share of police-involved shootings that followed an encounter initiated by the police. More and more of those shootings resulted when cops were responding to a "call for service," like a 911 call from a member of the public.

Black and Latino officers are more likely to shoot black suspects and incorrectly assume they are armed

The report found that the overwhelming majority (81 percent) of the suspects in police-shooting incidents were black, while a solid majority (59 percent) of the officers who fired their weapons were white. For context, Philly's population is about 44 percent black and 36 percent white.

But those top line numbers obscure a messier picture. For one, the report found that black and Latino officers were more likely to shoot an unarmed black suspect in an incident deemed a "threat perception failure" — police-speak for when an officer misjudges some kind of harmless object, like a cellphone, to be a weapon. And while white suspects were far less likely to be involved in police shootings, they were more likely to be unarmed when they were. But the report doesn't get into why any of those trends might be happening.

Officers feel "fear for one's life" justifies deadly force. It doesn't

I've written beforethat police use of force is one of the great unknowns in criminal justice — how often police use force, when they do so and under what circumstances. The report on Philadelphia's police department suggests that there's considerable fuzziness even among many cops around use of force.

The Justice Department said that there was a notable difference between the department's official policy on when officers could use deadly force in a confrontation and the way many police officers understood when they could use it.

"Officers we interviewed throughout the department believed that being in fear for their life was sufficient justification to use deadly force while mostly neglecting the objectively reasonable standard set forth in PPD policy and Graham v. Connor. The dictum 'in fear for my life' was the most common theme throughout all of our conversations with PPD officers and sergeants regarding deadly force policy. Yet, notably, the word 'fear' does not appear in [the directive outlining when police can use deadly force] nor is it supported by current case law."

The department standard for deadly force is "a set of facts and circumstances that a reasonable or rational officer would determine would likely result in unavoidable death or serious injury in order to justify the use of deadly force."

The report said that an officer fearing for his life is not considered an objective factor, and the department's policy on justifiable use of deadly force "is far more restrictive than 'fear for my life.' "

The report said that currently officers' firearms training focuses more on target practice and less on the department's policies about when officers can fire their weapons.

But the Justice Department also said the department's rules on what happens to cops who fire their weapons are too open-ended. "For example, accidentally discharging a firearm into a locker door should not fall under the same code as putting oneself in a position of peril and forcing a deadly confrontation with a moving vehicle," the report's authors wrote. As currently written, even someone who has violated the department's rules on use of deadly force three times could presumably be given nothing more than a formal reprimand.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.