The trigger-happiest of them all

May 5, 2015

Lauren Fleer analyzes a Justice Department report that exposes Philadelphia police.

PHILADELPHIA POLICE officers shot at 394 suspects between 2007 and 2013--a rate of one shooting per week--according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) shoots more of its residents than Chicago, Los Angeles and even New York, a city five times its size.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who was appointed to chair President Barack Obama's "Task Force on 21st Century Policing," requested the Justice Department investigation in 2013, at a time when fatal shootings by police multiplied even as violent crimes diminished.

Among its 48 findings and 91 recommendations, the report concluded that: Training of PPD officers is insufficient and contradictory; most officers involved in shootings aren't interviewed until three or more months after the incident; and communities don't trust the police. "Incidents involving discourtesy, use of force and allegations of bias by PPD officers leave segments of the community feeling disenfranchised and distrustful of the police department," the report's authors observe, corroborating the lived experience of too many Philadelphians.

Police officers on the street in Philadelphia
Police officers on the street in Philadelphia

The 394 officer-involved shootings between 2007 and 2013 killed 88 people and injured 180. Fifty-nine of the victims were unarmed. Police shot unarmed victims for two main reasons, according to the report: "threat perception failures" and physical altercations. Police were more likely to shoot unarmed Black victims after misidentifying a non-threatening object and were more likely to shoot unarmed white victims during a fight.

Of the 540 officers who shot at suspects in the seven-year period, only five lost their jobs. Twenty-one received some sort of "official reprimand," and 18 were suspended for a day or more.

IN A city where Blacks and whites each make up approximately 45 percent of the population, 59 percent of officers who fired their weapons were white and 80 percent of shooting victims were Black. The Justice Department investigators concluded in their report that the data show no racial bias or disproportionality in Philadelphia policing. "Significance testing indicates that most differences across suspects' racial groups are not statistically significant," the report claimed.

The report takes "a closer look at race," but only as it pertains to a small subset of shootings: Cases where victims were unarmed, and "threat perception failure" (TPF) was cited as the reason for shooting.

In these cases, which represent just 29 out of the 394 shootings, Black and Hispanic officers had a higher TPF rate than white officers. But of the total number of shootings, the disproportionality is obvious: Most of the officers shooting are white, and most of those shot at are Black. By focusing on just 29 of the 394 shootings, the real trends are obscured in order to elevate a less troubling narrative.

What's more, focusing on the race of the officers assumes that racism could only be a factor in cross-race encounters. This assumption reduces racism to a sentiment between individuals, rather than a systemic phenomenon of disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown people who stopped, arrested and extrajudicially executed, regardless of the race of the officers involved.

Black cops are subject to the same training, culture and systemic pressures as their white counterparts. And beyond the front line of beat cops and detectives, a multiracial coterie of public officials--including Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Mayor Michael Nutter and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, and on up to the U.S. Attorney General and president of the U.S.--oversees a criminal "justice" system where brutality and racism run rampant.

Asked about the fact that 80 percent of people shot by cops are Black, Commissioner Ramsey told the press conference: "Well, about 85 percent of our homicide victims are African American. About 85 percent of people who do the homicide are African American. So that's right in the ballpark. Listen, in case you haven't noticed, I'm Black myself, so I'm not real proud of the fact that we have a disproportionate amount of crime occurring in African American communities."

Translation: Blacks are shot at more because they commit most of the crimes--oh, and by the way, I'm Black, so this statement can't be racist. Ramsey essentially plays "the race card," but in reverse.

The truth is that we don't know who commits more crime because cops over-police Black and Latino neighborhoods, while letting violations of the law slide in communities where whites are the majority. An ACLU investigation conducted in Philadelphia this year discovered that 80 percent of all police stops and 89 percent of frisks, or searches, are of minorities. In 95 percent of searches, no contraband was discovered.

THE FEDERAL government has offered up several reports in recent months, each partially validating the conclusion reached by people around the country that too many Black lives are callously discarded at the whim of the police. The Justice Department investigation of Ferguson, the interim report of the presidential task force and now the Feds' report on Philadelphia all center on the theme of "repairing community trust." But is there any trust to repair?

Philadelphia police have a long record of corruption and abuse. More than 40 years ago, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission completed the Report on Police Corruption and the Quality of Law Enforcement in Philadelphia, which concluded that, "police corruption in Philadelphia is ongoing, widespread, systematic, and occurring at all levels of the police department."

In 1979, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia mayor, top city administrators and 15 high-ranking police officials, alleging that a "pervasive pattern of police abuse in Philadelphia" effectively denies basic constitutional rights to Philadelphia residents, and has a disproportionately severe impact on Blacks and Latinos.

In 1985, police dropped explosives onto a home occupied by members of the MOVE organization, leaving 11 dead and 250 homeless when the resulting fire was left to burn, destroying an entire city block.

Just since 2008, the city has paid out over $40 million in settlements to plaintiffs in more than 600 police misconduct lawsuits during Ramsey's tenure as Mayor Nutter's police chief. There are no glory days of harmonious race relations between police and the policed to hearken back to. As Angela Davis explained in a Guardian interview, there has been one continuous line of racist police violence from slavery to the present day.

The movement that have erupted in response to the racist murders of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and others have signaled to the federal government that the police lack legitimacy among broad sections of the population, not just on the revolutionary fringe. These reports are a sign that the government wants to fix this growing ideological problem by sending the message: "We're on it. Sorry. Won't happen again."

After the Justice Department came out, Mayor Nutter immediately promised to adopt the federal recommendations, and he has since appointed a civilian oversight board to implement them. But the question remains whether these reforms will have any meaningful effect--or if they are merely window-dressing to cover up a a system that is rotten to the core and needs to be dismantled.

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