Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How to complain about alleged misconduct by the police

How did your last interaction with the city go? Tell us about it at www.thecityhowl.com, email howl@phillynews.com, or call 215-854-5855.

How to complain about alleged misconduct by the police

Rochie Johnson got a settlement.
Rochie Johnson got a settlement. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

How did your last interaction with the city go? Tell us about it at www.thecityhowl.com, email howl@phillynews.com, or call 215-854-5855.

The problem: Rochie Johnson was leaving his job at a social-services agency in North Philadelphia when he heard a shout, "Put your f------ hands up!" Johnson thought he was being robbed in broad daylight. He turned and saw a Philadelphia police officer aiming a gun at him.

"I grew up in a tough neighborhood in South Philly," Johnson said. "But the first time I've ever had a gun pointed at me was by a police officer."

Another officer quickly arrived in a car with lights flashing and stopped just short of his feet, Johnson said. The second officer approached Johnson and lifted his shirt, searching him for a weapon. He found Johnson's cell phone, which he'd mistaken for a pistol from more than a block away.

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"The partner lowered his gun, but then proceeded to ask me for my ID," Johnson said. "He went back to the car to run the ID. I'm standing there, frustrated and wanting them to give me a reason for what had transpired. They were like, 'Oh, well, just deal with it.' "

Johnson believes he was stopped and frisked for being black. He wanted to do something about it - and he's not alone. Dozens of West Philadelphians recently marched to 19th Police District HQ at 61st and Thompson streets to protest the beating and arrest of Askia Sabur. We thought this would be a good time to examine how a citizen can make a complaint about alleged police misconduct.

How it's supposed to work: If you think you've been a victim of police abuse (including racial profiling), the most direct way to get an investigation started is to submit a written complaint to the police Internal Affairs Bureau.

Citizens "can go to any district office and see the operations-room supervisor," said Lt. Frank Vanore, a spokesman for the Police Department. "That supervisor. . . can provide you the form." You can also go directly to Internal Affairs, at 7790 Dungan Road, in the Northeast.

Vanore told us you'll have to provide a description of what happened and contact info and sign your statement. The department will match the date and time of an incident to radio logs to find out what officer was involved.

Have someone corroborate your story if possible. Vanore stressed that many cases get dropped because there isn't enough evidence to pursue charges.

"The best thing you can do is have documentation and also contact information for witnesses," Vanore said. "If it's he said/she said, and there's no proof, those cases don't go very far."

The investigation can be lengthy, Vanore cautioned, since Internal Affairs sends cases that they think may have merit to the Police Board of Inquiry, which recommends possible disciplinary action. The police commissioner ultimately decides whether to discipline an officer (from a slap on the wrist to termination).

Of course, many people who have been mistreated by police don't trust the department to fully investigate the case.

That's why victims of misconduct should also file a complaint with the Police Advisory Commission, the city's civilian oversight agency. According to deputy director Kelvyn Anderson, the commission provides outside monitoring of Internal Affairs and makes sure "the complaint gets through the process in the correct way."

That's how it works, but . . . After talking with a lawyer, Johnson submitted a complaint to Internal Affairs. He didn't hear anything for two months. Then he was called to headquarters to give a statement in person.

"Several months later, I got a letter in the mail saying the investigation had found that the officers had done nothing wrong," Johnson said. "It occurred in a high-crime area and they had the right to stop anyone who fit a certain profile."

Maybe this was the right decision, maybe not. Either way, dismissal of the case is a common outcome. Many cases are dropped due to lack of evidence. Critics point out two big flaws in the process: First, Internal Affairs is run by the police, which means they oversee themselves. More important, the Police Advisory Commission has no real teeth.

"They are advisory only. They can't take action," said civil-rights lawyer David Rudovsky, who represented Johnson in his complaint. Often, "Internal Affairs will simply ignore the commission's findings."

After the Internal Affairs ruling, Johnson and Rudovsky threatened a lawsuit, and the city decided to settle the case instead of going to trial. Rudovsky said that retaining an attorney is the only way for a victim of police brutality to collect compensation, though doing so doesn't address the issue of disciplining an officer who did wrong.

If you want to file a complaint about the police, you can call Internal Affairs at 215-685-5010, 5056, 5057 or 5058 or the Police Advisory Commission at 215-685-0891. Or go to http://www.phillypolice.com/forms/report-police-misconduct/

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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