In Philly, filing complaint against a cop isn't easy

At the 22nd District in North Philly, a reporter requesting a police-complaint form ran into a few obstacles.
At the 22nd District in North Philly, a reporter requesting a police-complaint form ran into a few obstacles.
Posted: January 31, 2011

THE NUMBER of complaints against Philadelphia police officers has spiked in the past few years, yet getting a complaint form isn't always as easy as it's supposed to be.

At times, officers at some police-district headquarters pressure complainants for personal information regarding the complaint, and provide misinformation or even deny them the form needed to file a complaint.

In spot checks conducted recently by the Daily News, supervisors at five police districts refused to allow the complainant to remain anonymous - which is against the Police Department's own policy - and wouldn't supply the form to reporters who posed as complainants.

An additional 11 of the city's 21 police districts did not follow department policies for filing complaints. Problems included creating a hostile environment for complainants, and neglecting to inform them of the procedure and locations to file a complaint.

Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said in an interview with the Daily News that he would address the problems found during the checks, and stressed his commitment to rooting out police misbehavior.

"We need to get the complaints. We need to be able to do a thorough and complete investigation and let the cards fall where they may," Ramsey said. "I will definitely deal with these five [districts].

"In the meantime, we have reinforced with our personnel that if a person wants to make a complaint against a police officer, give them the form," Ramsey said, adding that he previously established a hot line to address such issues.

During the spot checks, reporters visited every police district and politely requested a form to file a complaint against a police officer. All the reporters requested anonymity and said they would rather not discuss the nature of the complaint.

But a handful of officers and supervisors on duty didn't abide the request.

In the crowded lobby of the 12th District in Southwest Philly, a lieutenant on duty grilled a reporter about the nature of the complaint even after she said she didn't want to speak about it. He then told the reporter to complain at the Internal Affairs Bureau in the Northeast.

At the 19th District in West Philly, a supervisor was hostile and demanded ID before she would provide a complaint form.

And at the 22nd District in North Philly, the first officer to greet the reporter walked away and, at first, forgot to tell anyone that she was there. She eventually remembered and spoke with a supervisor, who approached the reporter but curtly denied her request to remain anonymous.

Those examples were among the worst in the Daily News spot checks. Most of the remaining districts were more compliant. Five districts followed procedures perfectly, and officers at some of the districts that didn't follow all directives were courteous or even friendly. But in all, 12 districts asked for an ID, an action criticized by the civilian Police Advisory Commission (PAC).

William Johnson, PAC executive director, said he heard that the districts recently began asking for ID and warned that the practice could prevent residents with legitimate complaints from coming forward.

"They have been doing that," Johnson said. "That kind of thing could have a chilling effect with complainants. It goes against their policy.

"There is a need for the department to be community-sensitive and make sure they're following the process. Their only obligation is to give you a complaint form."

Residents filed 644 complaints against officers assigned to police districts last year. That's up 33 percent since 2006, although the number of complaints to PAC from people who had been denied forms has decreased in the past five years, Johnson said.

Ramsey said that he didn't know where the idea to request ID came from.

"They don't need to show a driver's license and all this other stuff; that is unnecessary and it really dissuades people from filing a complaint," Ramsey said. "It's not a policy within the Philadelphia Police Department."

The problem with filing complaints, however, is nothing new.

Responding to a rash of complaints that districts were withholding complaint forms, PAC and the University of Pennsylvania Law School conducted a survey in 2007 of police districts in West and Southwest Philly. The survey revealed several problems, including that officers demanded an explanation of the incident or required that complainants provide their name and phone number to receive a form.

Such demands - which reporters encountered to varying degrees during some spot checks - are a clear violation of Philadelphia Police Department Directive 127, which states: "Complainants that wish to remain anonymous may do so. In such a case, the word 'anonymous' will be used in lieu of the complainants' name on all police reports."

Violating that policy "clearly creates a hostile atmosphere," said Samuel Walker, author of several books on policing, criminal-justice policy and civil liberties. "You shouldn't have to show ID. They should give you that form."

Reporters also found that several districts neglected to provide instructions on where and how to file a complaint - another procedure violation. Officers are supposed to tell complainants that they may file the form where they picked it up, at any other police district, or with Internal Affairs.

The options on where to file are provided in part to ensure that complainants feel comfortable enough to follow up on filing the complaint. If, for example, a complainant has a problem with an officer in the district where he lives and doesn't know that he can file the form elsewhere, he might not file a complaint at all.

Officers at three districts told reporters only that they could file at Internal Affairs, which could be a problem for residents who don't have a car. It can take about 90 minutes on public transportation to get to Internal Affairs, on Dungan Road near Rhawn Street, from the farther corners of the city.

Stephen Johnson, deputy police commissioner of the Office of Professional Responsibility, which manages Internal Affairs, said officers should never send anyone away.

Often, he said, the supervisor on duty will ask the complainant questions to see if the matter can be settled, especially if the complaint involves a lack of service or a minor misconception of policing procedures. But answering those questions is "totally optional."

"If they don't want to talk to a supervisor or if they don't want to talk to a captain, we issue them the complaint form," Johnson said. "We don't create another animosity by giving them a hard way to go."

Deputy Commissioner Johnson urged complainants who are denied a form to contact Internal Affairs immediately. If the complainant remains at the district headquarters, an Internal Affairs officer will contact the district to make sure he or she gets a form.

"We've had instances - usually a misunderstanding on the part of the people working in the operations room in the various districts," he said.

"If they insist on filing a complaint, you don't deter that process, you don't run the people, you don't check into a person's criminal history, you don't do anything that circumvents or impedes the complaint process.

"We want people to convey their grievances because it only makes us a stronger department."

The following staff writers contributed to this report: Stephanie Farr, Dana DiFilippo, Dan Geringer, Regina Medina, Dafney Tales, Tom Rowan, Queen Muse, Julie Shaw and Christine Olley.

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