By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern
Starting in November, the City of Philadelphia will make all civilian complaints alleging police misconduct available online. Or at least parts of them.
The executive order signed by Mayor James Kenney follows The Philadelphia Declaration’s Philadelphia Police Accountability Project — a venture designed to accomplish two goals: 1) to come up with $5,000 in copying fees that the city asked for to provide information about police complaints, and 2) to build “a truly independent, publicly accessible database of civilian complaints lodged against the Philadelphia Police Department.” Kenney’s order deflects attention away from the former goal and moves gradually in the direction of the latter.
Kenney’s order, which was signed, it claims, “to ensure openness and transparency,” requires the city to post a monthly list of complaints filed against Philadelphia police officers. The list will include complaint summaries, incident locations, and investigative findings within 90 days of the complaint being filed. The lists will begin rolling out on November 1, and data from the last three years will be uploaded by early 2018.
That’s progress! Revealing complaint summaries and locations is good. That information will allow journalists, citizens, and lawmakers to identify trends and address potential problems.
However, the lists won’t identify officer names, and the city is permitted to withhold “any portion of the investigative file that the Police Commissioner determines must be kept confidential.”
That’s called secrecy. That’s the opposite of openness and transparency.
A further concern is that the information offered online will become the only information available. There is no indication if individuals will be able to receive physical copies of complaints. If not, then the only misconduct complaint information available would be the heavily redacted online information.
Nationally, online police complaint data is becoming more available, largely as a result of civilian pressure. The Los Angeles Police Department has an app for viewing Office of Investigation reports and filing complaints, though the complaints themselves are not available. In Chicago, the police offer little information, but two initiatives, The Citizen’s Police Data Project and Open Oversight have been working to make complaint information available.
Cincinnati makes all complaints available online but without any information that would make identifying an officer possible. NYC’s Data Transparency Initiativemakes complaints public and also offers visual summary reports. However, the information released from individual complaints is extremely limited. It provides only basic location, giving no insight into who filed the complaint or which officer the complaint was filed against. Philly’s online misconduct complaint release will potentially look very similar to New York’s.
Other cities are setting a precedent for more transparency. Baltimore and Indianapolis go a step further than Philadelphia. Both cities’ police departments participate in Project Comport, an online database of complaints. Though Project Comport does not list officer names, it does list “unique identifiers,” allowing civilians to track patterns of officer misconduct. We think Philadelphia should set a higher standard than all of these systems; it should release names.
Mayor Kenney said in a statement on Wednesday, “Everyone who works for the city of Philadelphia is a public servant, and the public deserves to know we will take their complaints about any city service seriously.” How is the public to know if complaints are being taken seriously if they do not know who the complaint is against?
Being unable to identify the public servants involved in complaints cripples the public’s ability to hold them accountable.
If police officers are to be effective public servants, then their misconduct and the complaints lodged against them need to be public as well.
IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)
- Associated Press: “AP Exclusive: Parole for young lifers inconsistent across US”
- Juvenile Law Center: “Unlocking Youth: Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities”
- Pittsburgh Quarterly: “No Money Down Bail reform seeks to cut incarceration rates”
- Washington Post: “Fired and Rehired: Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets”
“Since 2006, the nation’s largest police departments have fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct that betrayed the public’s trust, from cheating on overtime to unjustified shootings. But The Washington Post has found that departments have been forced to reinstate more than 450 officers after appeals required by union contracts.
Most of the officers regained their jobs when police chiefs were overruled by arbitrators, typically lawyers hired to review the process. In many cases, the underlying misconduct was undisputed, but arbitrators often concluded that the firings were unjustified because departments had been too harsh, missed deadlines, lacked sufficient evidence or failed to interview witnesses.”
THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.
DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.