Philadelphia’s new police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, faces big challenges when she starts her job Feb. 10. In 2019, the city saw increased shootings and a high murder rate; allegations of gender bias and sexual harassment in the department; fallout from bigoted social media posts; and an overall lack of trust among residents, particularly black Philadelphians.
In one of her first public statements, Outlaw said “the paramount factor” is “the trust residents have that their police force will keep them safe and treat them with respect.”
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It might help Philadelphia police to unpack lessons from a case of police/citizen violence from across the state, in Pittsburgh, 10 years ago.
In my new book, A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations, I examine an encounter between three plainclothes Pittsburgh officers and an 18-year-old who attended Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School. The officers, belonging to a special undercover unit that combats drugs and guns, said they saw a man lurking next to a house and announced: “Police!” While the man stopped and talked with them, they said they saw signs he was armed. When he ran, they tackled and beat him. When they feared he was going for a gun, they hit him in the head. They found no gun on him, nor anywhere on the ground, but they arrested and charged him with felonies.
The young man remembered it differently: Three big strangers in regular clothes jumped out of a dark car and came at him, without warning, yelling at him to give up his drugs, guns, and money. When he ran, fearing a robbery, the men piled on and beat him badly, until he stopped struggling. He never knew, until the beating stopped, the men were police.
When pictures of the young man’s disfigured face hit local media, people were appalled: How could a 5-foot 6-inch 150-pound viola player, an honor-roll student who never had a whisper of trouble with police, get beaten so badly by three large trained officers? A court threw out the felony charges against the young man. The officers were suspended, and criminal investigations of their conduct began. But in the end they faced no charges nor internal discipline, and were reinstated. Two federal civil trials yielded inconclusive, contradictory verdicts.
Ten years later, we can look back: What could have made a difference? After so many instances of police/citizen conflict, we hear: training. How has that panned out in Pittsburgh?
In 2015, Pittsburgh became one of the six national pilot sites for the National Initiative to Build Community Trust and Justice. Those cities’ police departments received funds and support for three years of intensive training in implicit bias, procedural justice, and racial reconciliation. An independent organization measured how Pittsburgh residents felt about their interactions with police before and after training.
Results were positive — mostly. In four cities, residents’ opinions of police, including confidence and trust in them, improved modestly. People reported a difference in how they were treated and the respect they were shown.
In the fifth city, the survey showed no change. And in the sixth, results showed a decline — that is, citizen attitudes toward the police actually became more negative after training.
That city was Pittsburgh. Why?
First, the police did not take on the crucial task of racial reconciliation — such as guided conversations between police and minority groups about their history of interaction — until too late in the process to shape people’s responses.
Second, while training helps, what counts is people’s interaction with police on the ground. And that apparently didn’t change enough. Data from the Pittsburgh police indicate that racial disparities in enforcement actually increased after the training when comparing 2018 with 2017, in categories like arrests and stop-and-frisks.
Third, there seems to have been little change in what happens when something goes very wrong publicly. In October 2018, several undercover officers were caught on camera drinking to excess in a bar. When a bar fight ensued, some officers were captured on video punching a man in the face when he was already helpless. Those officers were “reassigned.” There were no reports of firings or even discipline, let alone criminal charges against the officers. All this earned the department multiple lawsuits, and seemed to reinforce the narrative that officers “get away with” almost anything.
In short, it’s necessary for the person at the top — a leader like Commissioner Outlaw — to articulate clear goals for the city’s policing.
But that isn’t enough. The message has to permeate to the street. When conduct doesn’t meet stated expectations, officers should be held responsible, to send the message that, just as with any regular citizen, gross misbehavior won’t be tolerated.
As Commissioner Outlaw contemplates the big job ahead of her, a message from Pennsylvania’s other large city: We’ve gotten some things right, but we haven’t lived up to the challenge in other ways. We can do better. So can Philadelphia.