HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Police Administration/
Internal Affairs Unit

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The Philadelphia Police Department has approximately 6,000 officers. The police commissioner is only allowed to appoint a handful of the top commanders; the rest of the force is made up of civil service employees. Some analysts conclude that the police commissioner lacks total control because it is difficult to fire anyone in the department, because the rank and file members are backed by civil service laws.

In March 1998, John F. Timoney became Philadelphia's police commissioner. Timoney, who is a veteran of the New York City Police Department, has a mixed record on dealing with police abuse.65 Timoney reportedly stated that the Mollen Commission, which looked into police corruption and brutality in New York, madeofficers ineffectual in their duties and opposed criminal prosecution for perjury of officers involved in the 30th District scandal.66

The department's internal affairs units were reorganized in 1998, with the Internal Affairs Division, the anti-corruption Ethics Accountability Division, and the Headquarters Investigative Unit all becoming part of the Internal Affairs Bureau.67 Human Rights Watch was advised that IAD's staffing levels are "considered confidential."68 It was anticipated that the September 1996 agreement would lead to an increase in IAD personnel. Its complaint form is in many languages, including Spanish, English, Korean and Chinese.

The Internal Affairs Division has often, in effect, protected officers who committed human rights violations by failing to properly handle abuse complaints. A November 1995 investigative series in the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example, found that Internal Affairs sustained only a small percentage of complaints, but that even when there was punishment, it was minimal; and in rare cases where officers were fired, they often got their jobs back through arbitration. Similarly, a June 1993 task force report looking into allegations of brutality at a September 1991 demonstration found that the IAD investigation was "structurally and systemically slanted against persons complaining of police abuse."69 And in a more recent review of IAD files, police abuse expert and Temple University Prof. James Fyfe looked at internal investigations of off-duty incidents of shootings, beatings, and domestic violence. Fyfe found the files were very disorganized, items were missing, and IAD's findings were often flawed.70

In 1996, the Internal Affairs Division reported that it received a total of 221 citizen complaints alleging physical abuse.71 Ninety-three investigations of physical abuse were completed during the year (from previous years and 1996), resulting ineighteen complaints sustained. In 1995, Internal Affairs Division reports that it received a total of 223 citizen complaints alleging physical abuse, with eleven sustained.72 In 1994, there were 170 citizen complaints alleging physical abuse. Of the investigations into physical abuse allegations completed during 1994, seventeen were sustained.

The IAD reports contain racial breakdowns, showing that African-Americans and Latinos make up a disproportionate percentage of complainants, but complainant information is not provided for each type of complaint. Of the total of 577 citizen complaints of all types in 1996 (including physical abuse, abuse of authority, harassment, verbal abuse, lack of service, criminal and other misconduct), African-American and Latino men and women made up 67 percent of complainants.73 IAD does not provide breakdowns by police district, and no information is provided to the public, including the complainant, regarding what disciplinary sanctions, if any, were applied in sustained cases.

When a complaint against an officer is sustained, he or she may appeal to the Police Board of Inquiry, a three-officer panel that can overturn the IAD finding. And if that appeal is unsuccessful, an officer may submit the case to arbitration, which often leads to the overturning or lessening of a disciplinary sanction.

Beginning in 1993, IAD maintained a secret "at risk" officer list to monitor

officers who were the subjects of repeated complaints or civil lawsuits alleging abuses.74 The list contained the names of twenty-one officers, who together had accumulated 180 complaints and had been responsible for actions resulting in about $2 million in lawsuit settlements against the city. The "monitoring" appears to have been entirely passive, yet the FOP protested it anyway, saying that it was used against Officer Leo Ferreira to deny him a promotion. Ferreira reportedly had been the subject of twenty civilian complaints during a nine-year career - more than any other officer on the force. Only one of the twenty had been sustained, after the complainant passed a lie-detector test. The sixteen-year-old complainant reported that Ferreira banged his head into a pole, dragged his face across the sidewalk, and slammed his face into a car. Ferreira was suspended for two days and appealed the penalty. In 1994, the city paid $50,000 in a civil lawsuit to a lawyer who allegedFerreira beat him after the lawyer won dismissal of charges against a suspect the officer had arrested. In his defense, Ferreira says, "I have a wall with commendations on it."75

Another name on the same "at risk" list was Willie Robinson, who had thirteen complaints, with one sustained. He was suspended for four days in March 1995 after allegedly putting a gun to the heads of North Philadelphia residents after someone threw water at his patrol car. Robinson allegedly kicked several residents in the head, neck and back while they were on the ground. Robinson unintentionally left his radio on during the incident and was recorded on tape telling one of the men he would "blow his fucking brains out." He appealed his suspension.76 Also on the list was Detective Kenneth Rossiter, who allegedly had nine complaints, four of which were sustained (the high rate indicating very strong proof of abuses). Despite his record, he was promoted just after a 1990 incident during which he allegedly beat a seventeen-year-old; the complaint against him in this case was reportedly sustained in 1993.77

The IAD is notified by the City Solicitor's office when a civil suit is filed alleging police misconduct, and the IAD allegedly "monitors" the lawsuit's progression. Yet the filing of a civil suit alleging excessive force, or even the settlement or award in favor of the plaintiff, will not necessarily lead to an IAD investigation. The City Solicitor's office claims that if a very egregious case is settled, IAD might investigate.78

IAD findings, when against the officer, are often not used in performance reviews of officers. The often superficial reviews, known as "the halo effect" (a phrase used by the police, apparently indicating angelic behavior), rarely mention brutality charges against the officer, even if sustained. A Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that between 1990 and 1995, the police department fired eighty-two officers it found had committed robbery, rape, extortion, drug trafficking and other offenses. One was convicted of murder. Until they were fired, seventy-nine of the eighty-two officers received top performance ratings.79 In the first report by the anti-corruption czar James B. Jordan, he noted that the performance evaluation systemwas "a joke."80 He reportedly examined the files of one hundred officer who had been fired and found that all but one had previously received top ratings.

John Baird, of 39th District scandal fame, reportedly received perfect job ratings for fourteen years during which he allegedly beat and robbed suspects, planted drugs and gave perjured testimony.81 Undeserved perfect ratings undermine efforts by the department to fire officers, since they are able to win reinstatement, in part, by referring to their glowing records.

In another case, Officer Michael Jackson received satisfactory performance ratings and a "[K]eep up the good work" comment in his October 1996 written evaluation.82 Yet during the previous year, Jackson had been the subject of three outstanding citizens' complaints (one leading to a civil lawsuit), had been told his conduct was insubordinate, and had been suspended for thirty days for being absent without leave.83

In fact, city officials maintain it is nearly impossible to get rid of problem officers in the rare instances when the department gets tough with them. Since 1992, punishment imposed by the department has been lessened or reversed two-thirds of the time or in fifty-two of seventy-eight cases that went to arbitration; in twenty of the fifty-two, the arbitrator completely reversed the department's punishment.84 Police Commissioner Neal stated that it is "frustrating to no end, these people who are being fired are people who should not be part of the department."85 Said Mayor Rendell, "We will fire them and fire them and fire them."86 An FOP lawyer, ThomasJennings, told a reporter that beating the city in arbitration, where, as of 1995, paralegals often represented the city, was "like taking candy from a baby."87 And an attorney who represents the city in these cases said the city devotes little in the way of legal expertise and allows itself to be "outgunned" by the FOP lawyers.88

65 Mark Fazlollah and Henry Goldman, "New police chief out to repeat success," Philadelphia Inquirer, March 8, 1998.

66 Ibid.

67 Mark Fazlollah and Thomas J. Gibbons, Jr., "Timoney hires a special counsel," Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1998.

68 Letter to Human Rights Watch from David Domzalski, police counsel, deputy city solicitor, November 6, 1996.

69 "Final report of the Citizens' Advisory Group," June 1, 1993, p. 1.

70 Human Rights Watch interview, August 19, 1996.

71 The Police Advisory Commission and IAD may receive the same complaints and may investigate them concurrently.

72 Prior to 1996, information regarding completed investigations by category of allegation were not provided.

73 According to 1990 census figures, African-Americans and Latinos made up approximately 45 percent of Philadelphia's population.

74 Mark Fazlollah, "Police track `at risk' officers," Philadelphia Inquirer, December 31, 1995.

75 Ibid.

76 Ibid. No further information regarding his appeal was available.

77 Ibid.

78 Telephone interview, City Solicitor's office, Shelly Smith, January 27, 1997.

79 Fazlollah, "Flawed reviews give..." Philadelphia Inquirer, April 21, 1996.

80 Fazlollah, "Conduct report praises police," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 20, 1997.

81 Ibid.

82 From report on Officer Jackson by Professor Fyfe as part of Greene v. Jackson, et al, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 2:97-cv-03931, filed June 9, 1997. There was a settlement in this case, for an undisclosed amount, which was entered into in February 1998. Telephone inquiry, U.S. District Court Clerk, May 19, 1998.

83 The same sergeant who gave the good performance evaluation was the superior who warned Jackson that he was insubordinate.

84 Gammage and Fazlollah, "Arbitration offers a route back to work," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1995.

85 Ibid.

86 Ibid.

87 Mark Fazlollah, "Repeated efforts at reform have gone little beyond paper," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 1995.

88 Gammage and Fazlollah, "Arbitration offers a route back to work," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1995.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch