After Years of Abuses, Has Philadelphia's Police Department Finally Turned the Corner?

A Philadelphia crime reporter reflects on the scandals that have hit the city's law enforcement apparatus—and the promise of reform.

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Apr 15 2015, 4:00am

Photo via Flickr user photommo

One hot July weekend in 2010, I picked up a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer and happened to come across a short piece about a man who had just been shot and killed by local police officers.

According to the article, police had responded to a call and arrived to find a 53-year-old behaving erratically and brandishing a large knife. The account suggested that the incident had unfolded over some time, noting that "negotiations and confrontations" ensued. At one point, police officers tried to use a Taser to subdue the man, but that failed—and then the man "charged" the officers, prompting one to shoot, killing him.

This was in the middle of a bad time for police shooting and killing people in Philadelphia, especially people in the middle of apparent episodes of mental illness: A year before, a homeless man had been shot to death after allegedly brandishing a box cutter; not long before that, police officers had shot and killed a naked man they arrived to find allegedly wielding a knife.

The details of these stories, especially when put side by side, often seemed—as they did in the meat-cleaver piece—a little hard to swallow. Philadelphia sure seemed to have a lot of suspects grabbing at weapons and charging armed officers. And the details weren't always being verified by any independent source. The meat-cleaver story had included no interviews with witnesses, neighbors, or family members and had instead relied on a single source: the police department itself. The same went for articles about the incident in other local news accounts.

A few days later I went out to the block where the shooting happened, a gritty stretch of row homes, half of them abandoned, in a beleaguered pocket of North Philadelphia, and started knocking on doors.

A woman answered at the first and, without opening the door, began to tell me a very different version of what had happened.

"It happened inside the house," the woman said—not outside, where police had gathered. A single officer had followed the man inside, away from witnesses. Then, she said, "They dragged the man out by his feet, letting his face hit the sidewalk and everything."

Over the following weeks, I would learn more about the man who was killed that day. His name was Harry Bennett, and he was a veteran, father, grandfather, and lifelong partner to his common-law wife. He'd struggled with disability—he had steel rods in his legs from an accident while serving in the Air Force—and with mental illness, for which he'd sought treatment at the Veterans Administration.

News accounts of Bennet's death hadn't included any witnesses, but several people, I learned, had in fact seen what had happened. I eventually gathered five independent accounts, which painted a very different picture of events than the one police officials had offered the local media—and which the local media had repeated in print. The Taser had worked, several people said, and Bennett had appeared shocked, or "frozen," as one described it, before he was shot. Rather than charging police, several witnesses said it was the officer who charged inside after Bennett and then, away from public view, shot him. Four witnesses independently verified that Bennett had then been dragged outside, in plain view of the street, by his ankles, his head knocking against the concrete steps, before emergency medical services had arrived.

It was a shocking alternative version of events that, accurate or not, had very nearly stayed entirely behind a few closed doors—not because no one was willing to talk, but because no one had come around asking.

The story I eventually wrote, "Why Is Harry Bennett Dead?" appeared on the cover of the Philadelphia City Paper in January 2011—and then seemed to disappear forever. It wasn't picked up by other news outlets, nor did the horrific descriptions of Bennett's death and the police's part in it receive any obvious further scrutiny. The news moved on, and so did I. Philadelphia Police Department officers would shoot at 44 civilians that year and nearly 60 the next. A few of the cases would get more scrutiny than did Bennett's, but most, like his, would warrant a brief headline and then vanish from public attention altogether.

Over the past year, as protesters have taken to the streets en masse to protest the deaths of young men of color at the hands of cops, the tragic story of Harry Bennett's death came floating like a deep-seated regret back into my consciousness. It seemed impossible—miraculous, in a way—that the country was suddenly engaged in a full-throated debate over the use of lethal force against unarmed persons by police officers, and the troublingly persistent fact that a profoundly disproportionate number of people dying at the hands of police officers are black.

Philadelphia cops had shot at civilians nearly 400 times in seven years, in numbers often equal to or exceeding those of New York, a city five times Philly's size.

The attention was also, in a way, frustrating: While the national media launched a thorough dissection of Ferguson's police force, the dozens of civilians shot and killed by the nation's fourth-largest police force were still just errant headlines stuffed into the back of the city's newspapers.

But that's finally changing, too.

Last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a 188-page report, "An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department," that comprised perhaps the most detailed analysis of officer-involved shootings in a major city police department ever undertaken.

The report had been spurred, in part at least, by reporting—a 2013 investigation by ­Philly.com found that police-involved shootings were soaring, even as crime was at an all-time low. Days later, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey announced that he was asking the DOJ to investigate the matter, essentially inviting the kind of federal intervention into police affairs that many cities have resisted or agreed to only when left with no other choice.

The report found problems, and lots of them. Philadelphia cops had shot at civilians nearly 400 times in seven years, in numbers often equal to or exceeding those of New York, a city five times Philly's size. Police had received poor training, the report found, and often didn't know Department policies on when to use lethal force. The Department's policies on Tasers ("Electronic Control Weapons") were muddled and confusing. Investigations into police-involved shootings were mired in unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and needlessly slow.

The findings are nuanced, and some defy the instinctive narratives that have cropped up in the wake of police-involved shootings, like that of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. The report does not, for example suggest that white officers were more likely to improperly shoot or kill black offenders than black officers; in fact, the report suggests that white officers experienced a "threat perception failure" less often in dealing with black suspects than did black officers. (Blacks are still profoundly more likely to be shot by Philadelphia police officers and made up 80 percent of all "suspects" in officer-involved shootings; it's also worth noting that a report by Pro Publica last year found that black men are 21 times more likely than white men to be shot by a police officer.)

But the feds paint an overall picture of a deeply troubled police department in which Philly cops shoot civilians far too often, often for the wrong reasons. As you might expect, the report found the Department's own investigations into the incidents tend to be woefully inadequate.

And while the report focuses solely on the issue of officer-involved shootings, it comes at a time when the Philadelphia Police Department is under scrutiny in a way it hasn't been for decades.

In 2010, Philadelphia Daily News reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman broke the Pulitzer Prize–winning series Tainted Justice, exposing a ring of narcotics officers who allegedly robbed bodegas and, according to hotly-disputed allegations, engaging in acts of sexual assault and other harassment of innocent civilians. (Last year, federal prosecutors declined to press charges).

Two years later, the District Attorney's office abruptly announced it would no longer call several narcotics officers to testify in criminal cases and, without saying why, agreed to begin dropping charges brought by those officers and overturn convictions based on their testimony. Last August, the officers were indicted for running what amounted to a drug dealing operation within the Philadelphia Police Department.

It had been satisfying to see so much attention on Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, she said, but also sad.

Also last summer, the District Attorney's office was hit with a class-action lawsuit alleging that it has improperly seized tens of millions in cash, cars, and houses seized via civil asset forfeiture—a legal but controversial process by which the government can take properly "linked" to a crime without bothering to convict a suspect, or even file criminal charges in the first place. I had detailed the DA's civil forfeiture apparatus for the Philadelphia City Paper in an investigative series two years prior, showing that police were routinely seizing cash from people who had been charged with no crime and turning it over—sometimes all of it, sometimes not—to the DA, with the Department getting a cut of the proceeds. I also wrote about the DA's practice of seizing houses from individuals charged with no crime, often from older women, based, sometimes, on a single allegation of drug dealing, often by a relative.

These various blemishes on the record of Philadelphia's criminal justice system can't be lumped into a single conclusion or a simple verdict, but there are intersections. Among the police officers whose reports were commonly used to seize these houses were the same six narcotics officers now facing federal racketeering charges. The DA has disavowed their police work, but kept the proceeds their work brought in. The officers exposed robbing bodegas weren't accused of wrongfully shooting at civilians, but the same District Attorney's office that didn't see fit to charge them has routinely declined to pursue charges in all but a tiny handful of police-involved shootings.

Still, for those who have waited for years, if not decades, for accountability in a city whose police officers seem never to face the glare of public scrutiny, the Department of Justice report has been a long-awaited break in the clouds.

"It's cold comfort, to some extent. But to see just how deep the rabbit hole was, when the report came out... I mean, yes: clearly, we feel a sense of vindication," says Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the civilian-run Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, which has re-emerged as a player in civilian police relations.

In years prior, Anderson had petitioned the police department to release even basic information about police-involved shootings to the Commission, which is empowered by the city charter to investigate such incidents, to no avail. Now, he says, police officials are meeting with his office, actually sitting down to go over what information he needs.

And among the recommendations made by the DOJ report—recommendations that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has appointed a separate panel to make sure are implemented—is a significantly stronger role for his group.

But not included in all that support is the kind of funding that would allow for a civilian review board made up of more than a few people—Anderson and a couple of staffers—to properly monitor cops in Philly.

"Without more funding," according to Police Advisory Commission Chairwoman Ronda Goldfein, "they're not going to be able to look into every complaint."

More likely, they won't be able to look into any but a tiny handful.

It's a task that should be shared, if not taken up altogether, by the city's media. But we know that isn't likely, either.

Just a few days after the DOJ report was issued, in fact, police officers shot another man. He had been armed and reaching for a gun, according an account given by the police—the only account of the man's death that the article ever mentioned.

A few weeks ago, I dug out my old notes and found a long-forgotten number for Harry Bennett's niece, Christine Bennett Dawn Johnson. I called, and she answered. She remembered me well, and said that the events in Ferguson had made her think about Harry—whom her family called "Sonny"—too.

It had been satisfying to see so much attention on Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, she said, but also sad. Bennett's death was never probed by authorities. The family had consulted lawyers, but ultimately decided not to pursue a lawsuit.

"It's nice to see that people care," she said over the phone. "But what about Sonny? What about the family he left behind?"

Isaiah Thompson is an enterprise and investigative reporter whose work has appeared in the Miami New Times, the Philadelphia City Paper, ProPublica, and on This American Life. He recently moved from Philadelphia to Boston, where he works for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and WGBH. Follow him on Twitter.