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September 13, 2023

Citizen complaints about Philadelphia police officers still take longer than a year to resolve, report finds

Processing time has improved slightly since 2017, but the long waits can deter people from reporting cops' misconduct

Government Police
Police oversight commission report Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Misconduct complaints against Philadelphia police still take more than a year to resolve, a report from the Citizens Police Oversight Commission finds. There have been greater improvements with other reforms, including more severe discipline for officers who are repeat offenders.

It takes police 409 days to investigate and review a typical citizen complaint about officer misconduct, according to new city data.

This process has actually improved slightly since 2017, when a citizen complaint took 463 days on average to process. But in its latest report, the Citizens Police Oversight Commission said the lengthy timeline might be deterring more city residents from reporting misconduct in the Philadelphia Police Department.

In a survey of 2,360 city residents, the CPOC found that respondents were "significantly less likely to file a complaint if they knew that the investigation and penalty process would take more than one year." Learning more about the current discipline process also lowered their trust in government efficacy, the surveyors said, and most people who had experienced a complaint-worthy encounter with the police did not plan to report it. Among the 4.5% of respondents who recalled such an incident, 73% said they had no intention of filing a complaint.

"This suggests that official complaint records may represent only a small portion of misconduct actually occurring across Philadelphia," the CPOC concluded.

The commission, which consists of nine citizens from different parts of the city, found more significant progress in disciplinary action. Previously, repeated misconduct was typically resolved through the non-disciplinary option of training and counseling. As the name implies, the officer under investigation would sit for a formal discussion with his or her commanding officers about the misconduct and receive corrective guidance.

After finding that training and counseling was used in 76% cases of sustained allegations, the CPOC recommended reforms to narrow the circumstances in which this option can be used. New data from 2022 shows that only 34.9% of cases now end in training and counseling, indicating more officers are facing formal discipline. A breakdown of outcomes showed that 60.3% of cases involving repeated misconduct now lead to disciplinary charges — ranging from transfer to dismissal.

The report also notes improvement in other areas. In prior years, the Philadelphia police sometimes dropped charges during plea negotiations if the officer admitted guilt. That practice has since ended. Attorneys not affiliated with the police department also prosecute discipline hearings as of January.

The oversight commission was formed in 2021 after Philadelphia voters overwhelmingly approved its creation through a 2020 ballot measure. It now functions as an independent watchdog with subpoena power to compel witness testimony and the release of documents. The latest data constitutes its second major report since its formation.

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