Philadelphia to Post Civilian Complaints About Police Online

Civilian complaints against police -- which can range from allegations of misconduct to harassment or physical abuse -- are considered public records after investigations have been closed.

by Chris Palmer, Philly.com / August 3, 2017

Civilian complaints against police -- public documents that have long been difficult for members of the public to access -- will be posted on a city website beginning this fall, Mayor Kenney's office announced Wednesday.

The change marks a turn toward transparency that was applauded by some criminal-justice watchers, although it remained unclear how police would react to the news.

"The release of this data is a common-sense reform that I hope will serve to increase community-police trust," Kenney said in a statement. "Everyone who works for the City of Philadelphia is a public servant, and the public deserves to know we will take their complaints about any city service seriously."

In a statement, Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. said: "I wholeheartedly support these provisions, as I too am fully committed to growth in the area of transparency and disclosure."

Civilian complaints against police -- which can range from allegations of misconduct to harassment or physical abuse -- are considered public records after investigations have been closed. The documents typically include a summary of the facts and the outcome of the investigation, among other details.

Currently, such documents are accessible only after a someone requests specific complaints from the Philadelphia Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, then travels to the unit's headquarters in Burholme to see them. Requests can often take days or weeks to fulfill, because complaints often need to be partially redacted to protect privacy information of civilians and police officers.

According to Kenney's statement, the documents posted online will have those redactions already made. It was not immediately clear how quickly complaints would be posted once an investigation is finished, although the statement did say that complaints will be posted starting in November and that complaints from the last three years would be posted online in early 2018.

It also was not clear how police would feel about making complaints easier for people to see. John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

David Rudovsky, a prominent civil rights attorney in the city, said the announcement "sounds like a significant improvement in terms of access and transparency," even if, in his view, "it doesn't solve the problem of how Internal Affairs investigates and how the department disciplines or doesn't discipline."

Ronda Goldfein, chairwoman of the city's Police Advisory Commission, also commended the decision, saying it furthered a culture of transparency from the department, reflecting a recommendation from the Department of Justice two years ago, when it evaluated Philadelphia's use-of-force policies.

"Any process that creates greater transparency into allegations of misconduct is a good thing," she said. "One of the DOJ recommendations talked about transparency and not keeping these things from the public. To the extent that this is an effort to do that, this seems like a step in the direction."

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