When Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review his department's use of force policy, he not only paved the way for long needed reforms, but also shrewdly saved himself potential headaches and the city millions of dollars.
A Philly.com investigation earlier this year found the number of police-involved shootings in 2012 had rocketed nearly 50 percent to reach the highest point in more than a decade — despite a decline in violent crime and assaults on officers during the same period. In an April interview with Philly.com, Ramsey said he saw no need to reevaluate his department's use of deadly force.
But following the news website's report, Ramsey invited the DOJ to conduct a review of the shootings. By inviting the DOJ to work with the department, instead of waiting for the feds to take action, Ramsey headed off what could have been forced changes and years of oversight. And by taking the first step, the department is also likely to avoid court involvement and potential embarrassment.
Ramsey said he is the first to actively pursue such "collaborative reform" with the DOJ's division of Community Oriented Police Services. (Read a full interview with the DOJ agent handling Philly's review here.)
"It's better this way. There's no question about that," Ramsey said. "[When] you get the courts involved and then you get all these unfunded mandates, it doesn't necessarily solve the problem."
In recent years, Philadelphia had one of 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 was available: Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York City.
A spike in a city's shootings by officers more often than not brings the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to review deadly-force policies. If such a federal investigation determines there's an unconstitutional "pattern or practice'' of excessive use of force, the city is required to enter into a consent decree and an independent monitor gets appointed to ensure the department adopts sweeping institutional changes.
During the last 20 years, many of the nation's biggest police departments have been subject to federal oversight, among them Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York.
The oversight comes with a stiff price. Police brass feel insulted by the loss of autonomy. The department suffers an embarrassing black-eye. And independent monitors are costly, an expense that must be borne by each city.
For example, in Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans and Seattle — all currently operating under federal consent decrees — the cost of monitoring each department runs about $1 million a year. And the monitoring can last for up to 12 years if the reforms aren't adopted quickly enough.
So Ramsey appears to have avoided most of that, if not all, by electing the "collaborative reform" option. The tactic produced immediate "big savings," Ramsey explains.
"It's just absolutely incredible the kind of money being spent on these things," Ramsey says. "When monitors are getting that kind of money it can reduce the incentive to declare the department in full compliance and move on. It can become unnecessarily protracted."
Since Ramsey announced the DOJ's impending review in May, shootings have fallen back to 2010 and 2011 levels, although it's not clear why.
Despite the decline, the commissioner remains committed to change. Already, the department has made steps to become more transparent by listing each police-involved shooting on its website.
Additionally, Ramsey has prepared a draft of a new use-of-force policy that emphasizes de-escalation.
"Sometimes an officer's mere presence and verbal commands may be all that's needed," he said.
He added that before considering the use of a firearm, police should then follow a continuum, progressing to control holds, the use of the police baton, and pepper spray or a Taser.
"We promised Justice they could review it first," Ramsey said. "If I start talking about it in too much detail, it might seem like it's policy now."
Kelvyn Anderson, director of the Philadelphia Police advisory commission, said the numbers showing reduced shootings are welcome.
"Less is better," Anderson said. "But I'd be hard-pressed to make any firm judgment as to why that is, if the department has a different policy or if they're teaching new tactics. I don't think they have.
"A simple drop in the number doesn't tell us much at all," Anderson said.
David Rudovsky, the civil rights attorney and University of Pennsylvania law professor, lauded Ramsey's announced changes.
"I think it's a good thing," Rudovsky said. "The key question is what changes are made and whether they are actually carried out day-to-day by the police department."
Though Ramsey is the first to ask for it, this is not the first time a police department has "collaborated" on reform with the feds. After a Las Vegas newspaper published a series documenting that city's police-involved shootings, the DOJ stepped in and ordered an in-depth analysis of 5 years shootings.
"The collaborative reform model is very new," said Josh Ederheimer, the DOJ's principal deputy director. "Las Vegas is the first city we've piloted this in. Now we're also doing it in Spokane, Wash., and Philadelphia. They want to engage in major improvements and reforms in their agencies and they think they can do it without court involvement."
The DOJ's review in Las Vegas resulted in 75 recommended reforms. And those recommendations aren't toothless.
"If Las Vegas did not make the reforms," Ederheimer said, "they would run the risk of the Civil Rights Division coming in an making a consent decree."
A recently published DOJ report on progress in Las Vegas lays out what Philadelphia may expect. Among the reforms taken up by the LVMPD:
- A Use of Force Review Board (UoFRB) made up of four citizens and three commissioned officers. The UoFRB reviews tactics and the decision-making of an officer who uses deadly force. A new Tactical Review Board (TRB), comprised only of officers, reviews tactics and decisions made by all officers involved prior and during the use of deadly force. The boards make recommendations to the top cop who decides whether to act on them.
- A new "reality-based" training program to prepare individuals and squads for deadly-force situations.
- A 6-hour course every two years to train officers how to deal with the mentally ill, depression and suicide, and "suicide by cop."
- An emphasis on "de-escalation training."
- Increased scrutiny of officers and required remedial or disciplinary actions when appropriate.