PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In a remarkable turnaround, federal officials on Tuesday praised the Philadelphia Police Department as a potential role model for better policing in the post-Ferguson era just months after citing it as a troubled agency that needed major changes in its culture and policy.
In May, the Justice Department issued a scathing report that found the police department's use of deadly force was motivated by fear and was overwhelmingly affecting black citizens. Since then, officials say the police department, the fourth largest in the country with 6,600 sworn officers, has completed or is making progress on 90 percent of the 91 recommendations listed.
"If you look at what has been done for an agency this size, for the amount of recommendations that were provided ... their progress is nothing less than amazing," said Ronald Davis, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
Among the changes that could soon be implemented is the use of the Pennsylvania State Police as lead investigative agency on officer-involved shootings resulting in injury or death, as well as on in-custody deaths of suspects. City Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said the two agencies are working on a memorandum of understanding.
The police department has already completed 21 of the recommendations. Several of them address use-of-force methods:
— After finding that the department's policy did not specifically limit how many times a person could be shocked by an officer's stun gun, the policy was changed to require officers to consider whether a stun gun should be used repeatedly and limited its use to three five-second cycles. Also, stun guns cannot be used on protesters who are "passively resisting" an officer's demands or on people who are handcuffed except to prevent harm to themselves or others.
— After finding that the department's policy was unclear on training regarding chokeholds, the policy was changed to ban them.
— The department created an award to recognize officers who use "exceptional tactical or verbal skills to avoid a deadly force situation."
Ramsey requested the federal probe in 2013 after an increase in officer-involved shootings that year. Among the findings in the report were that of the nearly 400 officer-involved shootings from 2007 to 2013, 81 percent of the suspects involved were black, and 59 percent of the officers involved were white.
Philadelphia as a whole is 43 percent black and 41 percent white. The police department is 34 percent black and 56 percent white.
The shootings included 96 deaths. In the report, the Justice Department said the shootings contributed to "significant strife and distrust" between the department and the community. The probe's recommendations included intensive training in use of force and community-oriented policing.
Mayor Michael Nutter said that the self-examination process was meant to bring the legitimacy and credibility of an outside review to the agency and that it gives the department a clear plan to move forward.
Philadelphia's probe began before the national conversation and unrest around community policing disparities sparked by deaths of unarmed black males in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland; New York City; Charleston, South Carolina; and Chicago. Since then, the Justice Department has announced investigations into departments around the country and has uncovered patterns and practices disproportionately affecting African-Americans.
Ramsey, who is retiring next month after Nutter leaves office, said he will encourage other jurisdictions to be proactive about seeking federal help.
"As far as police chiefs go, the goal has to be to stay out of the crosshairs of (the Justice Department) to begin with," said Ramsey, who added that he sought help after reading a similar report issued about another department. "It may not be your issue today, but it could be tomorrow."