Nearly two years ago, a Philly.com report revealed an alarming and puzzling trend: Philadelphia residents had committed fewer violent crimes and fewer assaults on police in 2012 than in the previous year, but the police had shot many more Philadelphians. A subsequent federal review underscores the cause for alarm but leaves less occasion for puzzlement.
The Department of Justice report released this week found that the city's officers are not consistently trained or equipped for alternatives to deadly force, nor are they reliably subjected to thorough investigations and oversight when they do fire their weapons. That makes it less surprising that police are involved in about one shooting a week and that many Philadelphians are reflexively suspicious of officers' use of force.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey rightly requested the independent review in response to the rising number of shootings, and he and Mayor Nutter seem to be taking its recommendations as seriously as they should given the city's long history of police corruption and violence.
The DOJ team found a relatively constant incidence of shootings over seven years, disproportionately affecting minorities and involving suspects with guns only a little more than half the time. Annual shootings involving officers fluctuated between 42 and 62 a year from 2007 through 2013, averaging 52 a year. Ninety percent of those shot by police were black or Latino, and 56 percent had firearms.
The report's findings on training and equipment show the department can do better by its officers as well as the public. Police aren't uniformly equipped with nonlethal weapons such as Tasers and pepper spray, for example. They are insufficiently trained in de-escalating conflicts, perceiving threats, and avoiding bias, the report found. And the department's use-of-force policies need to be clarified and more regularly taught to officers.
The DOJ also found that internal reviews of police shootings are inconsistent and often ineffective. Meanwhile, the department has unacceptably stonewalled external oversight by the Police Advisory Commission, while it's been without an integrity officer, another civilian overseer, since 2005.
The DOJ's findings have to be taken in the context of a city sadly beset by violence, with more than 5,000 gun crimes reported last year and most shootings by officers occurring in high-crime neighborhoods. However, there is little excuse for insufficient oversight, training, and tactics to minimize deadly force. The Police Department has a difficult, dangerous job, but taking pains to avoid adding to the bloodshed is an important part of that job.