On a clear September night in 2016, a 20-year-old black man and a female companion were driving through the darkened streets of Northwest Philadelphia when they noticed a 14th District patrol car tailing them. After a few blocks, two officers in the cruiser used their PA system to order the couple to pull over.
It’s unclear exactly what transpired next, but the male driver later affirmed in a formal complaint that one of the cops pistol-whipped him after he stepped out of the car. According to the complainant, he was struck in the mouth so hard that it chipped one of his teeth. As the driver’s companion panicked, the officer reportedly said, “Fuck your pretty teeth.”
Although the Internal Affairs Division rejects nearly 98 percent of physical abuse complaints lodged against Philadelphia police, they found this account to be credible. But nearly a year and a half later, neither officer has ever faced any disciplinary action over the use of excessive force.
They are hardly alone. A Philly Weekly and City & State PA analysis of 8,555 newly released civilian complaint records, dating from 2013 to the present, found that hundreds of allegations ruled credible by Internal Affairs have languished – sometimes for years – with no resolution.
Between 2013 and 2016, 138 cases that sustained allegations of misconduct against city police have no listed punitive action. Despite a requirement that Internal Affairs complete investigations within 75 days of receiving a complaint, an additional 172 cases have remained open for a year or more – and some may never be resolved.
“Any police department, institution or employer wants a procedure by which they can investigate wrongdoing by employees. But the unfortunate history of Internal Affairs in Philadelphia is that they don’t do a very effective job,” said attorney David Rudovsky, of the firm, Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP, who has sued the city over police misconduct. “It’s police officers investigating other police officers.”
Even when Internal Affairs hands off credible cases to the Police Board of Inquiry for punishment, records show that the majority of officers still walk away with nothing more than recommendations for additional unspecified “training or counseling.” Even in cases that include potentially criminal allegations, many officers are ultimately ruled not guilty.
But most cases never get that far.
“The last time we looked at physical abuse complaints, around 2003 or 2004, something like 1 percent of complaints were sustained. Little meaningful punishment has ever been imposed by Internal Affairs in Philadelphia,” said defense attorney Paul Messing, who is Rudovsky’s law partner. “It’s substantially below the average of most big-city internal affairs units.”
But 15 years after Messing’s initial examination of police disciplinary complaints, records show that little has changed.
Philadelphia has had a checkered history of police disciplining their own.
After a series of misconduct scandals in the late 1990s, then-Commissioner John Timoney promised to reform the Internal Affairs unit, which had long been treated as a stepchild by the department. At the time, a handful of staffers were split between tiny, crumbling offices scattered in different parts of the city.
“In some cases, we didn't know if more than one unit was investigating the same person,” said John “Ziggy” Norris, a respected Internal Affairs inspector, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998.
Timoney centralized the unit under Norris, pledging to ramp up discipline. But from the beginning, critics questioned how committed the department was to policing itself.
The new unit was banished to an office in a distant pocket of Northeast Philadelphia, where many members of the department live. Norris would soon retire and his successor would be quickly removed by new commissioner Sylvester Johnson – who, news reports indicate, had a reputation for leniency – in the early 2000s over a residency requirement violation.
In the late 2000s, Johnson’s replacement as commissioner, Charles Ramsey, once again beefed up staffing at Internal Affairs, promising to crack down on dirty cops. But even in cases where the commissioner directly intervened in disciplinary actions, he butted heads with the Fraternal Order of Police, which seeks to shield officers from punishment.
“At times, Internal Affairs has operated well…but the unfortunate fact in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia is that the police have ‘super’ due process through union arbitration,” Rudovsky said.
More recently – and following another wave of corruption scandals – Mayor Jim Kenney named a former Internal Affairs deputy, Richard Ross, as his police commissioner. Last year, in an apparent effort to increase transparency, Kenney also ordered the online publication of thousands of complaint records filed by civilians against police officers.
Previously, certain unredacted records were only available via direct requests to Internal Affairs. But to critics’ dismay, the newly released records do not explicitly identify offending officers – or their victims – by name, reducing their identities to simple initials.
In a questionably timed move, since the release of the online complaint data, Internal Affairs has stopped disclosing the identities of any police officers named in complaints.
Today, not even the Police Advisory Commission, a civilian board established by the Mayor’s Office to independently investigate complaints against officers, has access to unredacted complaint records, and public defenders are forced to subpoena individual records. Moreover, records relating to investigations launched by Internal Affairs itself have never been made public.
Police department spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew declined to confirm the identities of any officers named in complaints mentioned in this story. The Kenney administration declined to explain the rationale behind the partial release of records.
Delays in discipline
Despite those redactions, data analysis suggests that a small number of police officers are likely responsible for a disproportionate number of complaints. Out of the department’s 6,500 staffers, some 2,000 officers received just a single complaint over a five-year period. Thousands of other officers appear to have received no complaints at all during that time.
Police officers interviewed for this article concurred that it was unusual for the average patrol officer to receive more than a few complaints over a five-year period, either due to good behavior or victims’ reluctance to file formal grievance.
“A lot of people say, ‘What’s the point?’ You file the Internal Affairs complaint and you don’t get anything, even if it’s sustained,” Rudovsky said. “I think most people who do file legitimate complaints do it because they think they’ve been wronged and maybe want the police officer fired or retrained.”
It is also worth noting that many of the 8,555 complaints lodged against officers are frivolous on their face: one officer rolled his eyes, another spoke too curtly. Other complaints detail terrifying abuses of power – officers allegedly beating their spouses, stealing money, using racial epithets, beating suspects – but have been deemed not credible by Internal Affairs for unknown reasons.
But in the rare instances when claims of extreme misconduct are sustained, consequences may never come – leading criminal justice advocates to question both the sluggish resolutions and the lack of punitive outcomes.
In one harrowing case, an officer facing domestic abuse charges was able to leave the department without facing disciplinary action.
A woman, identified in records only as “Ms. P,” said she had been repeatedly terrorized by an abusive ex-boyfriend who happened to be one of the department’s own higher-ups: a 15th District sergeant identified by the initials “JT.”
According to the 2013 complaint, “JT” repeatedly threatened to kill “Ms. P” when she sought to end their relationship – and later slashed her tires. One night, he used a copied key to enter the woman’s house uninvited while her teenage daughter was home alone.
Internal Affairs sustained portions of that account, including allegations of domestic violence. But Kinebrew, the department’s spokesperson, said that “JT” retired that same year prior to facing the disciplinary board.
But in potentially criminal cases, department policy says that both Internal Affairs and the Police Board of Inquiry have a responsibility to refer cases to the district attorney for review.
“If Internal Affairs develops credible information concerning off-duty misconduct or situations like domestic violence, they have a responsibility to report it. And if they don't, they’re in dereliction of duty,” Rudovsky said.
Ben Waxman, spokesperson for DA Larry Krasner, said that it is “absolutely appropriate” for Internal Affairs to share information about problem officers.
The police department declined to identify specific cases that had been referred for criminal prosecution. But the District Attorney’s Office stated that between 2012 and 2017, Internal Affairs had referred 660 such cases – either from civilians or internally – for criminal charges. Just 62 resulted in arrests.
Despite internal findings that an officer may have trespassed and committed domestic abuse, “Sergeant JT” was never arrested over the incident or otherwise disciplined. Today, five years after he retired, police records still list the case’s resolution as “pending.”
In other cases of violent misconduct, both disciplinary action and Internal Affairs investigations appear to drag on with little urgency, including another physical abuse case involving a different police sergeant that is fast approaching its one-year anniversary.
Last April, according to this complaint, an 18-year-old white male and his female friend were driving the streets of Northeast Philadelphia on their way to pick up some groceries when they were stopped by an 8th District officer listed in city records only as “Sergeant FB.”
He accused the pair of making unspecified “offensive” hand gestures in his direction. During an ensuing altercation, the sergeant decked the 18-year-old and choked his female friend before arresting them both. Inspectors eventually sustained a charge of physical and verbal abuse against “FB” – but no punishment has been meted out to date.
The department offered no timeline for resolving that complaint and declined to identify the officer involved.
Police sources, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said it is also not unusual for a year or more to pass between the start of an internal investigation and a final disciplinary hearing.
Department spokesperson Kinebrew said delayed verdicts can be caused by the complainant or the accused officer’s unavailability due to illness, injury or extended leaves of absence.
But records indicate cases have stalled out even when multiple witnesses identified themselves in the initial complaint.
In November 2016, a registered nurse claimed to have witnessed officers pulling over two parents for erratic driving. The nurse reported that the couple tearfully explained to the police that they were taking their gravely ill child to the emergency room.
As the hospital’s chief of staff and other employees watched, the father was allegedly removed from the vehicle at gunpoint, handcuffed, cursed at, and placed in the officers’ patrol vehicle.
The father was released only when hospital security intervened on the family’s behalf, at which point one officer reportedly commented: “You should be glad I have a heart.”
Nearly a year and a half later, that investigation is still technically ongoing.
“I think that a lot of time, you find investigations are not up to par,” Rudovsky said. “We’ve looked at a lot of instances where witnesses were never interviewed or evidence was never collected.”
The shadow tribunal
Internal Affairs sustained only 15 percent of all 8,555 civilian complaints filed over the last six years – more than some big cities, like Chicago or Baltimore, but fewer than places like New York City or Washington, D.C. But the occasional case does make it before the Police Board of Inquiry, a three-member panel comprised of a rotating cast of sworn officers.
The PPD has previously barred members of the public from attending these hearings, which departmental edicts describe as “informal” tribunals where “strict rules of evidence shall not apply.” After reviewing each case, the panel makes a disciplinary recommendation to the police commissioner.
Complaint records list these outcomes as “guilty,” “not guilty” or “training/counseling,” but do not specify the police commissioner’s subsequent actions – if any.
Over the last five years, internal investigators have sustained 1,222 complaints against officers. 95 officers – just over 8 percent of the sustained complaints – were later found to be not guilty by the board, another 840 were referred for retraining or counseling. Only 160 cases yielded a guilty verdict.
“(The process) rarely imposes punishment, even when there is a finding,” said Messing. “I don’t think there is a rationale to it. The disciplinary system was long ago found to be ineffective – and still is ineffective.”
Yet Philadelphia officers facing disciplinary threats still often retain counsel through their union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. Under its recently renewed contract with the city, the FOP wields outsized power to arbitrate cases and reinstate police officers who have been terminated for misconduct – though it remains unclear how many dismissals have stemmed from civilian complaints.
Union reps did not return multiple requests for comment on this story.
Advocates say the city needs to go further than releasing partially censored complaint records to right police discipline in Philadelphia. Some, like Marcel Bassett, the Police Advisory Commission’s public affairs specialist, say effective discipline can ultimately build relationships with those policed by the department.
“(The release of civilian complaints) helped by creating more transparency with the police department,” Bassett said. “But it alone did not and will not fully repair the bridge of trust we are tasked with repairing.”
*Editor’s note: Following publication, the Police Advisory Commission clarified that it does, in fact, have access to unredacted complaint records, although the commission declined to provide further details.