New DOJ report shows Philly cops are really unclear about when it's OK to shoot people

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

"When you have as many as we've had," Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey said, "it gets people wondering if they were all justified."


The comments were made during an uncommon stretch of time in 2013, when Philadelphia police shot seven people in one week. Officer-involved shootings in the department rose significantly from 2012 to 2013, sparking local outrage, and leading commissioner Ramsey to call on the Department of Justice to put his department under formal review, and to issue recommendations for reform.

Today, the report is out. In it, investigators dive into some of the core issues with modern policing that have been scrutinized since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Much of it goes back to how police are trained in the first place.

Here's a few of the highlights of the report:

The problem with "in fear for my life" statements

The report dives into a common misconception that it seems many police have internalized: the belief that fear of life justifies the use of deadly force. From the findings:

The dictum “in fear for my life” was the most common theme throughout all of our conversations with PPD officers and sergeants regarding deadly force policy. Yet, notably, the word “fear” does not appear in PPD's [use of deadly force policy] nor is it supported by current case law. As noted in the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Deorle v. Rutherford, a simple statement that an officer is in fear for his life is not an objective factor.

Officers receive firearms training annually, the report notes. But that training is not in line with the department's actual policies:

According to PPD's [use of deadly force policy], justification for use of deadly force is far more restrictive than “fear for my life.” An officer must have a set of facts and circumstances that a reasonable or rational officer would determine would likely result in unavoidable death or serious injury in order to justify the use of deadly force. Although PPD officers are briefed on use of force law and policy annually through a portion of firearms training, neither of these courses covers PPD policy in depth.


The report recommends that the Philadelphia PD "should develop a standard training module" program reflective of its actual policies "and require all sworn personnel to complete the training on an annual basis."

There are two ways to justify use of deadly force

Like many police departments, the report says, the Philadelphia PD relies on literally two different charts that show police when use of deadly force might be warranted. Here they are:

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

"It is problematic, particularly for newer officers, that the PPD has two reference points to understand the department’s use of force policy, which each use a different illustration. Likewise, each policy describes the use of force review board, but uses different terminology, dispositions, and processes," the report says.

It suggests the two models be merged into one, to avoid any confusion or ambiguity.


Probable cause is not a reason to use deadly force

The problematic statement, from the Philadelphia PD's policy: “Police officers shall not use deadly force against another person, unless they have probable cause that they must protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury."  The policy then defines probable cause as, “facts and circumstances which would support an objectively reasonable belief that the officers must protect themselves or others from imminent death or serious bodily injury."


This language is "an unnecessary and confusing departure from the traditional legal definition of the term," according to the DOJ report.

The report recommends the department remove "reasonable doubt" from the policy, and replacing it with "objectively reasonable." That simple shift in language holds officers' actions to a higher standard, based on the actual facts of the situation, the report says.


Police are basically trained to use force

"The majority of academy instruction and scenario-based training sessions related to use of force end with the officer having to use force," finds the report. "Recruits often stated that the scenarios presented to them were invariably 'no-win' situations," where force was the only viable option.


This means that even when incoming officers should be receiving training on how to de-escalate a situation, they are rarely, if ever, shown methods to peacefully resolve a situation.

The report recommends that the department "review all of its use of force course material, including lesson plans, case studies, and scenarios and ensure that they demonstrate the opportunity for a peaceful resolution."


Blacks perceived as threats in the community

A few quick facts: between 2007-2013, there were an average of 4.3 officer-involved shootings a month in Philadephia. In 2014, that number dropped to 2.5, as commissioner Ramsey began implementing some reforms of his own.


Eighty percent of all suspects in these shootings were black. Many of these black suspects (8.8 percent) were shot due to what the report calls a "threat perception failure," more than double the rate for whites (3.1 percent).

"It is clear that the Black community is disproportionately impacted by extreme violence involving the police. The department must remain cognizant of this fact and improve academy training to better prepare officers for policing in a multicultural society," the report notes.


It recommends " significantly increase the scope and duration of its training on core and advanced community oriented policing concepts."

And finally:

The many issues of investigations themselves

There's a lot on this. There is no consistency in the approach, nor a dedicated unit that investigates deadly use of force incidents. Interviews with the officers involved are not video or audio recorded, and they often take place three to four months after the incident, the report found.


The report recommends all interviews be recorded, interviews to be conducted in a timely fashion, and that a specific unit is trained and dedicated to investigating officer involved shootings.

What will happen now

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Police commissioner Ramsey, who called for the report, is a central figure in the renewed push for police reform that has swept the country since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. last year. He was named by President Obama as the chair of a Task Force for 21st Century Policing, which issued its first report earlier this month. In it, the task force calls for all police forces to mandate "external and independent" investigations into all use of force incidents that result in deaths, and deaths in police custody. It also recommended that independent prosecutors review those cases.

Ramsey said of the report: "There's not a single recommendation in there I don't agree with," adding that the independence the report calls for is crucial "in order to restore and maintain trust" of the community.


Recently, Ramsey has found himself back in the national spotlight after the District Attorney Seth Williams declined to press charges against an officer for a December 2014 shooting. Protesters stormed the meeting, throwing chairs and pushing officers while demanding the commissioner release video of the incident. Ten arrests came of the incident. Ramsey and his department maintain that the suspect broke away from officers and was reaching back into his car for a loaded pistol when officers opened fire.

Williams called the shooting a "terrible tragedy, but not a crime."

"Black lives matter," Ramsey said. "[Protesters] have a legitimate issue."

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.