When a citizen files a complaint about a police officer’s official conduct, the public should, at some point, be able to find out what was alleged, how the issue was handled, and how it was resolved.
But what seems relatively simple often isn’t in Philadelphia, where police-community relations have long been complicated, and an impulse to protect police often takes precedence.
In November 2017, a database of citizen complaints debuted online after Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order to update an earlier policy that had required requests for information about complaints to be made in person. “The release of this data is a commonsense reform that I hope will serve to increase community-police trust,” the mayor said.
That was then. Last Friday, the WHYY website billypenn.com reported that some information that had been available on the database has been revised, and in essence, further limited. An officer who is the subject of a complaint is now identified by a code number, rather than by his or her initials. And instead of a detailed narrative of the police conduct that sparked the complaint, only a summary is provided; one reason given was that the narratives were many, and time-consuming for employees to enter into the system.
The changes, in effect for some time, alarmed watchdogs and others who see detailed information as essential. In a statement Friday, Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner said that “a 'high volume of data entry’ for civilian complaints is no excuse for failing to fully disclose complaints of police misconduct — especially when the high volume of complaints itself is symptomatic of how official misconduct breaks the trust of police with the communities they are sworn to serve.”
We agree with the DA that a high volume of complaints is a reason for more transparency, not less.
City officials said the changes are not a retreat from but rather a step toward transparency. Personnel and privacy concerns arose after reporters tried to ascertain the identities of officers based on initials, they said. Lengthy narratives not only proved time-consuming for personnel but also made it difficult for researchers, academics, and others to utilize the database and discern patterns of police actions — using inappropriate language, for example. The officials also insisted that these revisions to the public database predated the recent scandal over racist or otherwise offensive Facebook posts by 330 Philly cops.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced July 18 that 13 officers would be fired and another 56 would face disciplinary action as a result of their posts, which came to light in a report by the Plain View Project (plainviewproject.org), an advocacy group that assembles databases of Facebook posts by police officers in Philadelphia and other American cities.