Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Exclusive: Shootings by Philly police soar as violent crime plummets

The number of police-involved shootings in 2012 rocketed to its highest level in seven years, according to a analysis.

Shootings by Philadelphia police soared in 2012.
Shootings by Philadelphia police soared in 2012.Read more

The number of violent crimes fell last year in Philadelphia, as did assaults on police officers.

But the number of people shot by police is up.

Way up.

The number of shootings by police in 2012 resulting in death or injury climbed to the highest level it's been in 10 years. Philadelphia police shot 52 suspects last year while responding to calls for reported crimes. Of those shot, 15 people died.

And the city's own police watchdog says the department hasn't provided a reason for the increase. The Police Advisory Commission has been repeatedly blocked in its efforts to review shootings and, according to the executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, Internal Affairs has refused to supply requested information about any of the shootings.

Police Internal Affairs investigators and the district attorney's office have not raised any known concerns about the shootings. But the number dwarfs that of the previous year. In 2011, 35 were shot. In 2012, the shootings increased almost 50 percent.

Critics say the data, collected and analyzed by, raise questions about the use of deadly force in Philadelphia.

"It certainly raises a red flag," said David Rudovsky, the civil rights attorney and University of Pennsylvania law professor. "The numbers almost speak for themselves."

"If it is higher, we need to know why," said Kelvyn Anderson, of the Philadelphia's Police Advisory Commission.  

Philadelphia in recent years has had one of the highest rates of shootings by police in the nation. When measured against violent crime, Philadelphia, more often than not, tops other major cities for which data were available: Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York City.

In an interview last month, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said he saw no need to reevaluate the use of deadly force.

"I think we have a solid policy and consider it best practice," he said.

Of the statistics, he said, "The numbers fluctuate from year-to-year."

The Police Commissioner also said he was skeptical about drawing conclusions by contrasting Philadelphia to other big cities.

"You have to put in all in context," Ramsey said: "The question is: 'What is the officer confronting on the street or why they are shooting at someone?' You have to take a look and see what the situation was at the time."

One factor: Assaults on police.

"We have a lot of people on the street with guns, a lot of people not afraid to use guns, and a lot of them are not afraid to assault a police officer," Ramsey said.

He said the number of suspects who were armed with guns while assaulting police had climbed by a third last year compared with 2011, though the total number of assaults on officers was down.

And despite that trend, the number of suspects who actually fired on police fell from a high of 12 in 2010 to a total of 3 in 2012, according to police statistics.

The total assaults on police - regardless of whether the suspects were armed - continued their downward trend falling from 912 to 896 last year.

"We only shot back 52 times," Ramsey said. "So it's not in every incident involving a gun do we shoot, but roughly half."

Before coming to Philadelphia, Ramsey was commissioner in Washington D.C. When he first took command in 1998, he described the number of shootings by the Metro police force "disturbing." The next year, he asked the Department of Justice to review the department's use of force practices and ordered a crash firearms qualification program, according to the Washington Post. By the time he left in 2007, the number of police-involved shootings had dropped precipitously.

Shootings by police have been a problem in Philadelphia for decades.

As recently as 2005,  an "accountability officer" for the department released perhaps the most detailed and comprehensive report ever on gunfire by Philadelphia police. The report, by Ellen Green-Ceisler, now a Common Pleas Court judge, pointed to a "troubling trend that deserves close attention and monitoring" – a surge in the number of people killed by police compared with the late '90s.

Since then, the accountability position has been abolished. And the figure for last year shows that the trend identified in the 2005 report has continued unabated.

In her study, Green-Ceisler reported that over the five-year period from 1998 to 2002, police killed a total of 24 people. In contrast, in the most recent five years, police have fatally shot 65 people.

The data also show that during the initial period analyzed in Green-Ceisler's report, no Philadelphia officers were killed by gunfire in the line of duty. But in the last five years, 4 have died.

All shootings are reviewed by the District Attorney's office to determine if they are legally justified. There have been no prosecutions of police-involved shootings since Ramsey took command of the force in January 2008. Some cases from 2012 are still in the hands of the DA's office, Ramsey said. Within the police department last year, Internal Affairs found 11 violations of police directives, the fewest in at least four years. Some of those violations involved shooting at, or from, a vehicle or a delay in reporting incidents.

Comparing the use of deadly-force in comparable cities is an imperfect process, criminologists said. The FBI does not require police departments to divulge all shooting data.

And there's a problem in using the total number of fatalities and woundings as a basis to measure differences, said Robert J. Kane, director of the program of criminal justice at Drexel University and author of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. 

"Philadelphia officers just may be better shots," Kane said

The best standard would be to measure all uses of deadly force - all incidents in which an officer fired a gun - "even if they didn't hit them," Kane said.

Ramsey has made that data available. While he has been commissioner, the use of deadly force has fluctuated annually between 42 and 64 incidents. In 2012, police used deadly force 59 times, up from 45 in 2011. The number topped out at 63 in 2009.

Other cities do not routinely provide that information to the FBI or the public, said Kane.

"So you use the data that's available," the criminologist said.

One notable surge was in the sheer number of bullets police fired at suspects last year: 474. That's the most shots fired at suspects since 2004. The number of rounds has steadily increased since Ramsey's first year, when officers squeezed off only 211 shots. In 2011, police pulled the trigger 316 times firing at suspects.

The analysis shows that Philadelphia's rate of police shootings, when compared against the number of violent crimes, was 2.90 per 1,000 incidents.

In recent years, five of the police departments in comparable cities were put under increased state and federal scrutiny.

All have had lower rates of shootings than Philadelphia.

  1. In December, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation in Houston regarding six cases in which officers fatally shot or injured six unarmed individuals. The rate of shootings in Houston for 2012 was 1.25; in Philadelphia, 2.90.

  1. In August 2012, Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown announced major changes in department policy including mandatory Taser training for all officers following several police-involved shootings. In 2012, the rate of police shootings in Dallas was 2.39; in Philadelphia, 2.90.

  1. In December 2011 in Las Vegas, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered a review of officer-involved shootings after the Las Vegas Review Journal published a five-part series documenting police-involved incidents. In 2011, the rate of police shootings in Las Vegas stood at 1.66. That same year in Philadelphia, the rate was 1.92.

  1. In January 2011, Baltimore launched an investigation following a police-involved shooting where two died and four were wounded. The Internal Review Board recommended several changes to deadly-force policies. The rate of police shootings in 2010 in Baltimore was 1.07; Philadelphia's in 2010 was 2.32. The next year Baltimore's rate was 1.58, Philadelphia's 1.92.

  1. In 2008 in Chicago the comparable rate was 1.54, vs. Philadelphia's 1.59. In early 2009, Chicago Police Superintendent Jody P. Weis ordered a Force Analysis Panel (though a report apparently still has not been issued) to review firearm discharge incidents to determine whether training, tactics, equipment or safety issues could be improved.

Anderson, of the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, is baffled by the rise in officer-involved shootings. But his efforts to review them have been stymied.

Investigations are cloaked in secrecy. The Commission can't rule whether shootings are justified because they are denied access to the police records.

Anderson said the police bureau of Internal Affairs has refused written requests to provide information to Commission investigators - despite an executive order requiring them to do so.

"We believe that the department does not provide any public reckoning," Anderson said. "That causes a lot of problems with the community. If we continue to hide the results, the public isn't going to have much confidence in the police.

"It's something the city really needs to deal with," he said.  "You can't take someone's life without a public reckoning."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796, @samwoodiii or

This is the first story in an occasional series by examining police shootings.

To view graphics charting the Rate of Police Shootings by city and others, open the drop down menu below. Other graphics follow.


Rate of police shootings in each city is calculated by adding number of fatalities and injuries in a given year, dividing that result by the number of violent crimes, then multiplying by 1,000.

Sources: FBI Uniform Crime Reports; Philadelphia Police Department; Dallas Morning News; Justin Felton at Baltimore Sun;;; NYC Annual Firearms Discharge Report,; Department of Justice,;  

Sources: FBI Uniform Crime Reports; Philadelphia Police Department; Dallas Morning News; Justin Felton at Baltimore Sun;;; NYC Annual Firearms Discharge Report Department of Justice,

Source: Philadelphia Police Department

Source: Philadelphia Police Department

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report, state and city law enforcement agencies

Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report, state and city law enforcement agencies