In a city awash in guns and an out of control homicide rate, it’s horrifying to consider that the source of some of those guns could be the Philadelphia Sheriff’s office. An investigation announced last week from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found 200-plus guns missing from that office due to sloppy management and nonexistent controls. The possibility that some of those guns might have ended up on the streets is a sickening outrage.
Further, some of the sheriff’s office practices highlighted in the report --illegal gun trading, a chaotic disorganized arsenal that includes Uzis and M-16s—sounds more like a criminal gang than a law enforcement department.
It’s the latest chapter in a decades-long story of sheriff department dysfunction. That history includes criminal conduct and massive oversight failures. Former sheriff John Green who served from 1988 to 2010 is now in prison for accepting bribes and kickbacks. The controller’s report laid the chaos in the management of guns primarily on his successor, Jewell Williams, who lost reelection amid multiple complaints of sexual harassment.
For the hundredth time: Why does this office exist?
The 200 missing guns includes 101 unaccounted for service weapons – guns allocated to the 300 deputy officers whose duties include transporting prisoners, serving writs and warrants, and conducting sales of foreclosed and delinquent property.
An additional 109 missing guns include those confiscated from subjects of protection from abuse orders. The sheriff’s office takes temporary custody of those guns until the order expires, and the guns must be returned to their owner.
The investigation found sloppy, haphazard storage of firearms, lax record keeping, and incomplete handwritten logs … and even more disturbing revelations:
The department lacks a policy for officers who leave the sheriff’s office to return their guns; 25 missing firearms are still assigned to former officers.
The sheriff’s office conducted illegal trades of confiscated guns to gun dealers.
Service guns are subject to routine procurement rules, so those valued at under $750 aren’t required to be specially catalogued or asset tagged.
Missing guns were never reported as lost or stolen to the police department.
The current sheriff, Rochelle Bilal, who took office in 2020, cooperated with the controller’s investigation and claims that her office has fixed the problems. We may be confident of her intentions but skeptical there’s been enough time to thoroughly fix such an operational mess. The report claims the gun tracking software purchased in 2018 is still not being fully used.
This is a black eye for the city on many fronts, including the fact that the city has sued the state for the ability to impose stronger gun control laws. This debacle is ammunition for state lawmakers who don’t think the city can be trusted. That’s why both the Mayor and City Council should be raising hell over this issue. Council should also reanimate a 2010 bill that started the process of eliminating the office of Sheriff and re-assigning its duties – and its $27 million budget – to more appropriate agencies. When that bill died, so did any hope that the history of incompetence, mismanagement and waste that’s been enabled for decades might be rewritten.