For the average person in Philly, having a job means being an at-will employee who can lose employment at any time, for any reason. If you make a careless mistake that costs your employer a lot of money, you can assume you’ll be fired. Make a mistake that causes injury or harm to others and you may receive jail time or pay restitution out-of-pocket over a period of time.
But in one line of work in Philly, not only can you make expensive mistakes and keep your job — you may even get back pay for the time your employer spent investigating it. If you’re among the fortunate 330 or so employees in one city department who make at least $100K annually, that back pay adds up.
What employees have this kind of extreme job security? Philadelphia police officers. And the employer hemorrhaging money? That’s us, the taxpayers.
Recent data have shown that between 2011 and 2019, in 170 cases where the Fraternal Order of Police fought to dismiss or reduce police officer discipline, the city paid 26 officers at least $1.2 million in back pay and other payments. In addition, the city has paid nearly $4 million to settle federal lawsuits involving 15 of these officers. Altogether, The Inquirer reported that Philadelphia taxpayers have doled out at least $5 million over the past decade to officers just through the arbitration process alone.
Even if you’re among the small percentage of police officers who gets fired from the department, there’s a good chance you can get your job back within a year or two. This might even happen more than once.
And years later, we’re all still paying for these cases.
As a taxpayer in Philadelphia, having to foot the bill for such egregious “mistakes” — including a 2014 shooting by two plainclothes officers who misidentified, shot, and nearly killed an innocent deliveryman, leading to a $4.4 million payout from the city — makes me angrier than any tax abatement or nominal sugary beverage fee.
These hefty bills take city money that could help renovate our schools or staff our libraries. Even worse, these payouts do not lead to a safer community for Philly residents, and they fracture communities’ faith in the more trustworthy and law-abiding officers. In the 2014 shooting, the officers involved were never removed from the force, even after community complaints and a packed town hall. Instead, the officers were moved to different districts, where they became a potential liability in yet another community.
The losses here go beyond the monetary: There are victims and families who will continue to suffer lifelong injuries and loss, not to mention the trauma of being shot, harassed, or otherwise harmed by someone they’re told is there to protect them.
The 2014 shooting is just one especially costly case worth highlighting. As of 2015, Philadelphia taxpayers were paying an average of $10 million a year to settle claims of police misconduct. Several years ago, a former female officer with the PPD was awarded a $1.25 million settlement in a case she lodged against a commander who she alleged sexually assaulted her and led a department where she said sexual harassment was pervasive. Another commander accused of sexually harassing at least four female cops was in fact promoted last December to supervise the Special Victims Unit. Even after all of this, the PPD’s total operating budget is set to increase by $29.8 million next year.
Many Philadelphia schools are a poisonous disgrace. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We have an affordable housing crisis on our hands, and still one of the highest poverty rates in the country. Mayor Kenney has to figure out another way to fund the settlements the PPD costs us, rather than simply accepting the bill.
I’ve been fired exactly once in my life. My absence during that shift probably cost my employers very little — they fired me because I was irresponsible and unreliable. It’s unconscionable that someone with the power to injure or harm civilians, with publicly documented evidence of deeply held biases and discrimination against the communities they are supposed to protect isn’t held to the same standard. And it’s completely unacceptable that we are expected to continue to pay for their mistakes.
Larissa Mogano is a senior media specialist and community organizer in West Philadelphia. Kendra Van de Water, a licensed social worker and policy reform advocate, contributed research to this article.