HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

The September 4, 1996 Agreement
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After six months of negotiations, an agreement was reached between the city of Philadelphia and civil rights organizations threatening to file a federal "pattern andpractice" class-action suit.8 The agreement is based on an understanding that if the city fails to implement it, the class-action suit will go forward. The agreement, under the jurisdiction of U.S. District Court Judge Stewart Dalzell, provides for a two-year monitoring period by the court and lawyers from the involved groups. Mayor Edward Rendell, while insisting there was no "systemic" problem in the police force, acknowledged that the agreement was "the most ambitious anti-corruption program undertaken by the Philadelphia Police Department in its history."9

After a delay, the police department complied with part of the agreement, providing the plaintiffs' counsel with piles of documents related to police accountability, including abuse complaints. As of this writing, the attorneys were reviewing the information and preparing a database for further analysis. It is anticipated that the information will be made available to the public in some form.10

Among the agreement's other reforms, the city created an anti-corruption task force to review systemic problems in training, Internal Affairs Division (IAD) procedures, and internal discipline. The members of the task force had been appointed and were meeting informally as of this writing. The task force reportedly does not have subpoena power, but police officials have been instructed to comply with requests for information and documents.

The agreement called for the creation of an Integrity and Accountability Officer (IAAO), similar to an inspector general, to monitor and audit IAD and the Ethics and Accountability Division (EAD). In October 1996, James B. Jordan, former deputy city solicitor, was named to the new post. Jordan submitted his first report to the judge monitoring the agreement in November 1997 and gave a generally positive assessment of the IAD's reform progress.11 He stated that there had been "dramatic improvement[s] in the qualify of IAD investigations" and found that IAD'sinvestigations were "meaningful and thorough."12 He noted continuing deficiencies, including the IAD's failure to complete investigations within the seventy-five-day limit and long delays in implementing an off-duty policy, noting that "improper conduct and abuse of authority by off-duty police officers has been a significant problem...."

As part of the agreement, attorneys also submitted a report to the judge monitoring the pact in September 1997, and their assessment of the IAD's performance was less positive.13 They gave the IAD a "C" grade - passing but not good. One of the attorneys stated, "[T]here are significant shortcomings in too many of the investigative files that we reviewed." He added that IAD investigators were "justifying the officers' actions where an independent analysis would find misconduct."14

The IAAO was tasked with helping to establish an "at-risk" officer list - identifying officers with repeated or serious citizen complaints and high numbers of use-of-force reports, in an effort to identify officers who repeatedly commit abuses and establish a system of retraining, psychological assistance and intensive supervision - but as of late 1997 the "at risk" system had not been created.15

The 1996 plan requires all police personnel to accept citizen complaints and notify IAD regardless of apparent merits or sources, thus removing the discretion exercised by some officers who choose not to accept some complaints.16 IAD must also set up a hotline for anonymous complaints and make allegations by fellow officers a high priority, the agreement stated, "the department should commend, support and protect officers who truthfully report misconduct or corrupt activities of other officers."17 There was not full agreement about whether IAD should investigate all cases where officers have used significant force; the city only agreedto have IAD investigate cases involving citizen injury leading to hospitalization, or in cases where the officer files a report after using a blackjack (a hand weapon typically consisting of a piece of leather-enclosed metal with a strap or springy shaft for a handle), baton, pepper spray or firearm. (This provision is imperfect, because officers do not always file use of force reports.) The agreement also instructs, or reminds, the IAD to use a "preponderance of evidence" standard when reviewing complaints. IAD is also instructed to complete investigations within sixty days and, where officers on probation are the subjects of complaints, within the probationary period. If this guideline were followed consistently, it would represent an enormous change from the lengthy investigations of the past - which typically ranged from three months to a year.18

The agreement also requires the department to revise its use of force reporting guidelines to require reports on the use of sprays or shocks, batons, fists, feet, the drawing or display of firearms, the use of carotid holds, neck grips, discharge of firearms, and any other degree of force resulting in visible or reported injuries to suspects or others. The attorneys also proposed eliminating the use of blackjacks, but the city ignored that recommendation in its response.19

After the agreement was announced, the Fraternal Order of Police, forever out of step with the concept of reform, stated that agreement was part of "ACLU's efforts to keep their boot on the throat of the police."20

8 "An agreement to combat police corruption," NAACP, Philadelphia Branch and Police-Barrio Relations Project, on behalf of themselves and their members v. City of Philadelphia, Civil action no. 96-6045, September 4, 1996. The U.S. Justice Department is reportedly conducting an investigation into whether there is a "pattern or practice" of abuse by Philadelphia's police force. See introduction.

9 Mark Fazlollah, "Major police reforms announced," Philadelphia Inquirer, September 5, 1996 and Ibid.

10 Telephone interview, William Gonzalez of the Police-Barrio Relations Project, August 11, 1997.

11 Mark Fazlollah, "Conduct report praises police," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1997; Joseph R. Daughen, "IAD gets high marks," Philadelphia Daily News, November 20, 1997.

12 Fazlollah, "Conduct report," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1997.

13 Mark Fazlollah, "Police get a `C' for reviews of citizen complaints," Philadelphia Inquirer, September 30, 1997.

14 Ibid.

15 Fazlollah, "Conduct report praises police," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1997.

16 This new requirement was criticized by Jordan, who stated that it contributes in delays in investigating meritorious complaints. Ibid.

17 September 4 Agreement, point 5.

18 According to Prof. James J. Fyfe, who examined 277 complaints against PPD officers during 1989 and 1992, the mean time for IAD closure was 136 days. He also examined the time it took to complete investigations into five complaints against PPD Officer Michael Jackson; one was completed within the time limit (which was then seventy-five days), but the mean time for four earlier complaint investigations (during 1995 and 1996) was 326 days.

19 According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only a handful of police departments, of any size, currently use blackjacks. Facsimile dated August 15, 1997.

20 Michael Matza and Mark Fazlollah, "Measures get mixed reviews," Philadelphia Inquirer, September 5, 1996.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch