May 13, 2024 - News

Power Check: Missing police misconduct data

Illustration of a magnifying glass burning away a redaction to reveal documents and photos.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Watchdogs have struggled to track misconduct complaints against Philadelphia police since the former Kenney administration stripped key details from the city public database four years ago. No resolution is in sight.

Why it matters: Mayor Cherelle Parker doesn't plan to restore the information, which experts say prevents the public from assessing whether the department is reducing misbehavior within its ranks.

State of play: The Parker administration is committed to decreasing the number of complaints against officers, and recognizes the need for more transparency and accountability, chief public safety director Adam Geer tells Axios.

  • But police spokesperson Eric Gripp tells Axios the department doesn't have enough staff to input the level of detail provided when the database first launched.

Catch up quick: Former Mayor Jim Kenney created the database in 2017 to improve transparency and public trust. At first, the database identified officers and complaining citizens by their initials, and included full narratives of the allegations.

  • But the initials and narratives were removed in 2019 — replaced by one-sentence summaries with sparse details about encounters.
  • The Kenney administration, at the time, blamed limited staffing. Some critics, however, question the move, noting the rollback came after reporters, watchdog groups and the public defender's office used the info to identify officers in some cases.

What they're saying: Experts tell Axios the limited detail makes it more difficult to track disciplinary outcomes and they've encountered several problems with the data.

  • Michael Mellon of the Defender Association of Philadelphia said the department uses broad categories as a catchall.

Case in point: 36% of the complaints in a city watchdog report in 2021 were classified as departmental violations, which spans everything from allegations of constitutional violations to theft and mishandling of evidence.

Plus, there are often delays in updating data. Another police spokesperson tells Axios the database is supposed to get monthly updates but that routinely doesn't happen.

A column chart that displays annual reported police misconduct complaints in Philadelphia from 2019 to 2023. The number of complaints peaked in 2019 at 682, then decreased to 616 in 2020, slightly rose to 654 in 2021, dropped to 623 in 2022, and significantly fell to 509 in 2023. The chart shows a general downward trend over the five-year period.
Data: OpenDataPhilly; Chart: Axios Visuals

By the numbers: Complaints against Philadelphia police fell 25% from 2019-2023, per police data provided to Axios.

  • Yes, but: The police department decreased by nearly 1,200 officers over the same four-year period, dropping from 6,577 to 5,386.

The department says other factors also led to the decrease, including emphasizing community policing, which improved relations between officers and citizens.

The fine print: Axios obtained the most recent data directly from the department due to delays in postings to the database.

The big picture: Philly received what amounts to a flunking grade in a transparency index from Vera Institute, a criminal justice advocacy group.

  • It assessed many of the nation's largest police departments on several factors, including accessibility to data. None scored above 76 out of 100.

What we're watching: Parker has promised zero tolerance for police misconduct.

👁️ Have an issue you want us to investigate with our Power Check series? Send tips by replying to this email or contact Isaac at [email protected].

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