With shootings by Philadelphia police rising to the highest level in over a decade, Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has asked the Department of Justice to review the department's use of deadly force.
The request follows a Philly.com story published May 14 documenting a 50-percent increase in the number of police shootings in 2012.
Police in Philadelphia shot 52 suspects last year. Of those, 15 people died. In 2011, police wounded or killed 35 people.
"When you have as many as we've had, it gets people wondering if they were all justified," Ramsey said. "We've been looking at this issue since December. The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ knows and agrees this is a good course of action."
The Justice Department's review, to be funded by the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), will include an analysis of policies, procedures, training and tactics. It will begin in mid-July.
Calling on the Justice Department is not a first for Ramsey. As chief of the Washington D.C. police, he requested a similar inquiry.
The DOJ conducted a comparable review in Las Vegas. The 2012 study prompted a major overhaul in policy. Among the changes adopted there: Las Vegas police are now advised to place minimal reliance upon the use of force; focus on de-escalating dangerous situations; and be willing to retreat from erratic subjects.
The rise in shootings by police in Philadelphia last year came as the rate of violent crime continued to plummet and the number of assaults on police officers fell.
Philadelphia police this year have been involved in 19 shootings to date, about 32 percent fewer than last year's 28 during the same period.
Ramsey said he had called in the feds because an internal assessment might not be viewed with the same degree of faith and trust.
"When you don't have the credibility in the minds of the public, then it doesn't matter,” he said. “There will always be a bit of a cloud. It leads to tension in the communities where we're most concerned.
"We may have reached that point here in Philadelphia," he said.
Philadelphia in recent years has had one of the highest rates of shootings by police in the nation. When measured against violent crime, Philadelphia, more often than not, has topped other major cities for which data were available: Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City.
The police departments in each of those cities have recently undergone reviews of their use of deadly force.
Ramsey's decision to invite the Department of Justice was met with applause, though some expressed doubt that changes would be made.
“Given the number of police shootings in the last year, an outside review of shooting policies and practices is a good and necessary first step,” said Philadelphia civil rights attorney David Rudovsky. “But none of it is binding. There is no force of law behind any of it. They can ignore it.”
Ramsey said would open up the entire department to federal inspection and act on their findings.
“I think it’s important that that level of scrutiny take place,” Ramsey said. “When we do that, whatever those recommendations are, I’m ready to implement those guidelines."
Ramsey's decision to call in the DOJ was hailed as "courageous" and “extraordinary” by Kelvyn Anderson, the executive director of the city's Police Advisory Commission.
Extraordinary it may be, but for Ramsey it is not without precedent. Ramsey has a national reputation as a reformer.
“He says what he means, means what he says, and will do what he says. That’s why I have such confidence the reforms will be implemented,” said Josh Ederheimer, the interim head of the Justice Department’s COPS office.
When Ramsey was appointed chief in Washington D.C., he joined a department with a reputation tarnished by the use of excessive force. One of his first actions was to call for a review by the Department of Justice.
Before Ramsey left Washington for Philadelphia, police shootings dropped 87 percent. But Washington, he said, was a different situation.
"D.C. had no training and standards at all," he said. "Some officers had gone two or three years without firearms training at all."
The situation in Philadelphia isn't nearly as egregious.
A Philadelphia review will likely take less than a year, Ramsey said. After consultants do a soup-to-nuts investigation, the Justice Department will bring experts to the city. As in Las Vegas, the federal government will fund the entire process.
Ramsey said he is optimistic a review will reduce the amount of police gunfire, and, perhaps save lives of both citizens and the police that protect them.
“I want to keep officers safe. I don’t want any more officer deaths,” he said. “I want people to understand that if you can back out of a situation, or do something else, that may be the better way.”
But he’s also realistic.
"I can't guarantee there will be no more shootings," he said.
Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796, @samwoodiii or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second story in an occasional series by Philly.com examining police shootings.