A cache of information about police shootings in Philadelphia, recently released without notice, is already being used to look at trends in the department’s use of deadly force.
The department posted the data earlier this month. The dataset includes all shooting incidents since 2007. Each entry contains a barebones summary of a particular shooting but does not name the involved officers or their targets. Last November, the department released information for 2012 and 2013.
“It’s great,” said Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the city’s Police Advisory Commission. “It’s a very good beginning that gives us a large scope of police shooting activity to consider.”
A Philly.com investigation last year found the number of officer-involved shootings in 2012 had rocketed nearly 50 percent to reach the highest point in nearly a decade despite a decline in violence and assaults on officers.
Following the website’s report, Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey asked the Department of Justice to conduct a review of his department’s policies and practices. The review is due to be publshed before the end of the year. Previous DOJ reviews of other departments across the country have stressed the need for greater transparency.
This month’s release of information had been planned before the DOJ’s office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) arrived to conduct the review, said police spokesman Lt. John Stanford.
“Our efforts continue to be transparent with the citizens we serve so they might look over the summary reports at their leisure, instead of having to depend on a 20-second clip on TV or a short story in the newspaper,” Stanford said.
Some believe the department is not being transparent enough. Paul Hetznecker, an attorney who successfully sued the city and police in a wrongful death case for $2.5 million, said the newly published information "falls short of anything meaningful."
"There have been 56 police shootings in the past 18 months, and not one of those investigations has resulted in disciplinary action against any police officer," Hetznecker said. "Offering the public the raw numbers without disclosing the nature of the review process, as well as the reasons for their internal findings, begs the age old question 'Who guards the guards?'"
According to statistics on the PPD website, in 2013 police fatally shot 13 people and wounded 23. The number of police shootings in 2014 are on track to be among the lowest in memory with only 15 police-involved shootings recorded through August.
(The numbers for 2012 were revised by the department following Philly.com's report. Where they once reported that officers had killed 15 and wounded 37, they have been changed to read that officers killed 16 and wounded 32. Police could not immediately explain what led to the change.)
The Police Advisory Commission has mined the new data for information on shootings in which offenders possessed bb guns, pellet guns, toy guns or replica guns. The most recent shooting involving a bb gun was in Jan. 2014. Anderson found that since 2007 police have fired on 16 offenders wielding weapons of that sort. Two of those were fatal.
Curiously, in three of those shootings, the offender carried both a traditional weapon and a pellet gun.
“That speaks to complicated usage on the part of those folks,” Anderson said. “I don’t know why they go with both. Even if they’re only caught with a pellet gun, they’d get the same mandatory sentence they'd get for using a real gun.”