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A damning audit of the Philadelphia police must be an impetus for real reform | Editorial

A report by the city controller found that the department is inefficient, disorganized, and wasting millions in taxpayers’ money. Amid record homicides and rising shootings, an overhaul is needed.

The department’s poor results have occurred while its budget has ballooned. Since 2016, police funding has increased by 23%.
The department’s poor results have occurred while its budget has ballooned. Since 2016, police funding has increased by 23%.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s audit of the Philadelphia Police Department offers a disturbing window into the inner workings of the police force as it confronts record murders, daily shootings, and rising crime. The report’s 85 pages paint a damning picture of a department that is inefficient, disorganized, backward, and wasting millions in taxpayers’ money.

While the department has many dedicated officers who risk their lives daily, it also has a long history of corruption, brutality, and racism. Even against that ugly backdrop, this audit was jaw-dropping. Consider some of the lowlights:

  1. Philadelphia has the fourth-largest police force in the country, yet most of the officers are not on the street fighting crime. Of the roughly 6,000 officers, only 2,500 are assigned to patrol. Hundreds of officers do administrative jobs that could be handled by civilians, including delivering mail.

  2. The number of police on patrol at any one time is shockingly sparse, ranging from just 22 officers in high-crime districts to an average of 11 in low-crime areas.

  3. The city’s ballyhooed crime fighting strategy — called Operation Pinpoint — is designed to focus resources on high-crime areas. Yet, the initiative launched as a pilot program in 2019 and quickly scaled up has never been fully vetted to determine if the strategy even works. In fact, the rising crime numbers indicates otherwise.

  4. The national standard for 911 calls is to answer 90% within 10 seconds. But the department hasn’t met that goal since 2018. More disturbing, the response time was twice as fast in some white neighborhoods compared to Black and brown communities. What’s more, the response time to the highest priority 911 calls was longer than any other city reviewed.

  5. The police department has outmoded and inefficient systems that waste time and money. For example, some paper documents get hand-delivered across districts by uniformed officers. Hello? Email, anyone?

The inefficiencies are borne out in one powerful data point: Between 2016 and 2020, the police department had the lowest homicide clearance rate among the 10 largest cities in the country. During that same time, the number of murders in the city increased by 80%.

The department’s poor results have occurred while its budget has ballooned. Since 2016, police funding has increased by 23%. The city’s police budget is $800 million — by far the biggest of any department.

A sizable chunk of taxpayers’ money goes to pay the salaries of officers injured on duty. Since 2017, the number of officers who have missed more than a year of work due to an injury has jumped from 10 to 124. During that time, the city has spent $205 million on salaries for injured officers.

» READ MORE: Philly Police Dept. has inconsistent strategies, slow response times, and outdated systems, city controller says

While an officer injured on the job deserves to get paid, the program appears rife with abuse. An earlier Inquirer investigation found some officers worked second jobs while collecting their police salary. The Inquirer also found the percentage of Philadelphia officers out of work for injuries is substantially higher than other major cities.

This next line has been said many times before over the decades: The Philadelphia Police Department needs major reform. Many police commissioners have tried but there is always a major obstacle: the Philadelphia police union.

The union’s knee-jerk response is to fight nearly every major reform and protect every officer, even the rotten apples. In fact, shortly after the city controller’s audit was released, police union leader John McNesby trashed it: “According to this report, the Police Department does nothing right. I mean nothing.”

To be sure, police officers have a difficult job, and much is expected of them. But the audit showed a glaring need for improvement. Given the stakes, it would be a welcome change if McNesby would become part of the solution, instead of part of the problem.

Likewise, after nearly three years on the job, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is at a crossroads. Murders and shootings continue at a record pace. Crime is the top concern for residents. If there is a plan to reform the department and reduce the violence, now would be a good time to see it.