Failure to give accurate information keeps Tate-Brown tensions alive

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Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey needs to get the story straight on controversial cases.

NOT SO FAST, commish.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey blamed a rush to provide the public with details for a false report in the controversial police shooting of Brandon Tate-Brown.

That's one way to recall the department's disastrous handling of the case, but no amount of finger-pointing is going to undo the damage to its credibility.

Tate-Brown was shot by an officer on Dec. 15 as he reached into the front passenger side of his car for a stolen, loaded handgun - that was the official story. And it remained the official story, even after a video shown to Tate-Brown's mother and her lawyer showed he was actually running near the rear of the car - not reaching into it for a gun - when he was fatally shot in the back of the head by an officer.

When I contacted the police department's spokesman, Lt. John Stanford, back in February to confirm this updated information what I got instead was this: "The department's official description of the incident hasn't changed . . . It wouldn't be professional on our part to go back and forth with the family or the attorney in public about this case . . . not because we are wrong . . . because it's not the right thing to do."

Really? Even with a video that shows otherwise.

And as it turned out, the department was indeed wrong.

But that wasn't publicly acknowledged until Ramsey admitted it last week - six months after the shooting.

"The first story is one that usually does not have everything down 100 percent in terms of accuracy," Ramsey told the Associated Press. "We're caught in the middle. The media's asking, 'What happened, what happened, what happened?' The people want to know. We give you what we have at that moment."

But he added: "One thing that doesn't change: There was a gun in the car. The officer saw the gun. There was a struggle. There was an attempt to get back to the car. There were witness statements that confirmed that."

Oh, brother.

Let me get a couple of things out of the way first. Not to put down my own tribe, but other than typical initial coverage of the shooting, most mainstream media came late to the story. The first story that delved deeper into the controversial shooting of Tate-Brown, 26, came more than two months after he was killed.

I wouldn't exactly call that pressure.

When Ramsey and I spoke yesterday, he repeated that as statements are taken and witnesses come forward, stories change. No argument here; I see it all the time.

But in controversial incidents like this one it's vital to correct false information as soon as possible.

And having a department spokesman stick with a story that was clearly contradicted only added to the strain between the department and family and protesters that brought national attention to the case.

When I brought that up to Ramsey he said he'd look into it. A few minutes later he called back and was quick to take the blame for a public information office that for months peddled a false narrative.

Good on him, that's what leaders should do. Except delayed mea culpas aren't going to repair the department's credibility.

"It was an internal communication problem," Ramsey told me. Lt. Stanford had not been made aware of the latest information at the time. There will now be a liaison between the internal affairs department and the public information office to make sure the latest information is shared, he said.

Putting aside the fact that the first rule of disseminating public information should be to make sure it's accurate and up-to-date, an observation:

As of last night, a summary of the incident on the police department's website still states that Tate-Brown "ran to the passenger side of the window and was reaching for a gun when an officer shot him." Ramsey said he'd get that fixed.

Fixing the relationship between cops and the community will be harder.

That was clear at a noontime press conference yesterday where Attorney Brian Mildenberg, who is representing the Tate-Brown family in a civil suit against the city, called for the officers involved to be pulled off the street and for District Attorney Seth Williams to reopen the criminal investigation. (That was a negative on both counts from Ramsey and Williams.)

"The D.A.'s conclusion that a crime did not occur was based on a false story which has now been completely and utterly debunked," Attorney Mildenberg said outside City Hall.

Others at the press conference were more blunt, saying the cops lied.

Family and protesters had lots of issues with the investigation and its conclusion, but in short this was their message to the police department: We didn't buy your story then, we aren't buying your story now and with all the contradictions about why Tate-Brown was pulled over and why he was shot, we're never going to buy it.

That includes Ramsey's assertion that despite "slight variations" to the story there was a gun in Tate-Brown's car that he was attempting to get to when he struggled with police.

Maybe. But that's a hell of a leap of faith he's expecting from a public that was kept in the dark for too long.

Ramsey said there will be new protocols in place for police-involved shootings, including giving the public some information following such incidents and communicating developments that won't affect the ongoing investigations.

"It's unfortunate that we're in an environment now where everything seems to be based on trial by media or court of public opinion," Ramsey bemoaned.

No, commissioner, what's really unfortunate is that some police departments still refuse to understand that a failure to communicate fuels suspicion and anger, and that post-Ferguson, the public isn't just going to buy the "official" story because it comes from a person in uniform.

Good leaders understand that.


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