High rate of shootings by Philly cops

Posted: October 10, 2007

Steven "Butter" Miller was waving around a loaded gun, apparently high on drugs, back in July when he was shot dead by police in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia.

The next day, a cop shot at Malik Jones in Southwest Philadelphia, believing the black object in his hand was a gun. No gun was recovered, Jones was not hit, and he was not charged with a crime.

Nearly a month later, cops fatally shot Jason Henry, saying he had lunged at them with a 14-inch butcher knife; witnesses said he was only trying to regain his composure after being stunned with a Taser gun.

Police officers in Philadelphia increasingly are faced with the split-second decision of when to use deadly force. And even before cops fatally shot 15-year-old Ronald Timbers on Monday afternoon in Crescentville as he brandished a household iron, these kinds of incidents had been on a steady rise.

A Daily News survey has found that Philadelphia has one of the highest numbers of police-involved shootings among the nation's big cities.

In 2006, Philadelphia police reported 110 police-involved shootings with 22 fatalities - a somewhat higher rate than this year's tally of 45 police-involved shootings with 11 fatalities after a little more than nine months.

By comparison:

* Los Angeles, a much larger city, reported 44 police-involved shootings with 16 fatalities in 2006, and 45 shootings with 21 deaths this year.

* Chicago, also larger, reported 44 shootings with 17 fatalities in 2006, and 29 shootings with 13 fatalities this year.

* Houston - America's fourth-largest city - reported 43 police-involved shootings in 2006 with seven fatalities. The city has had 30 shootings so far this year, with seven fatalities.

* New York officials were unable to provide numbers of police-involved shootings for 2006 or this year, but said that since Oct. 1 the city has had seven fatal police-involved shootings.

While there is no clear reason why Philadelphia's numbers of police-involved shootings are among the highest, experts and officials give several explanations.

Top cops and police-union officials say the situation reflects the large number of guns on the streets and too many thugs with no respect for human life. But critics say that police training is inadequate and note that other cities are taking a more innovative approach.

University of Pennsylvania Law Professor David Rudovsky, who specializes in police-brutality cases, blamed the department's high shooting numbers on lax supervision and poor training.

"There is a great reason to be concerned," said Rudovsky of the rising toll. "It is a police management issue," he said. "A lot has to do with the message police officers hear from their supervisors and the heads of the department."

Rudovsky also said the current police administration promotes a culture in which a cop who pulls the trigger has little accountability.

Procedures have changed radically in recent years, so that while once a Philadelphia cop involved in a fatal shooting might have been off the streets for years during the investigation, today that officer could be back on patrol in just five days.

Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross, who heads the police department's internal-affairs unit, said it's unfair to compare Philadelphia's police-shooting numbers to those of other major cities.

"If you look at the amount of guns used in homicides, 86 percent, we would be remiss to overlook the obvious correlation between the level of violence and what officers face out on the street," he said.

Fraternal Order of Police President Robert Eddis said that Pennsylvania gun laws are too lax and that the Criminal Justice Center is overrun with repeat offenders.

"Our legislators can fix this," he said. "Our officers are facing an amount of danger never seen before because of the amount of guns in the street. . . . It seems the criminal element is no longer fearful of the officer in uniform."

Some experts say Philadelphia cops are poorly trained to handle suspects who are potentially deadly and emotionally disturbed.

In February, the department graduated 20 cops into the Crisis Intervention Team, a new unit that sent cops into Kensington to handle mentally ill suspects.

The New York Police Department has had a similar team for years - the Emergency Service Unit - which it credits, along with other techniques, for keeping police shootings to a minimum.

"To sum it up," said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne, a NYPD spokesman, "training, training, training."

The New York unit is equipped with an array of tools to help subdue suspects: a shepherd's crook, a long pole with a U-shaped handle for scooping up a person by the midsection; and a blanket covered with Velcro straps, resembling a large straitjacket.

One police department with an innovative approach is Miami's, headed by former Philly top cop John Timoney.

"We changed the philosophy," Timoney said. "Sometimes police officers are too brave for their own good."

Timoney outfitted all cops with Taser guns to give them "options," and challenged supervisors when an officer discharged a weapon.

Miami cops have fatally shot three people since 2003.

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