Fixing Philly – Complaints against police go online

In a few short months, the Philadelphia Police will make complaints against officers available online for anyone who wants to see them.

It is a move towards transparency for the city’s police force and, in an interview with Captain Sekou Kinebrew, head of the Philadelphia Police’s public affairs unit, he said it is being done as a way to build trust between police officers and the communities they serve.

“It benefits us day to day, even to the officers in the field because transparency yields public trust and when you have public trust you get more cooperation,” he said. “I think it’s also an officer safety issue. People that trust you might be less likely to aggress against you and, you know, with a lot of encounters that end up becoming volatile, it’s because of misunderstandings or miscommunications at the very onset.”

Now, making these complaints available to the public is nothing new – the public can request to view closed complaints at the Philadelphia Police Department’s Internal Affairs’ headquarters in Burholme – but this will allow the public much easier access to these types of documents.

When Chicago recently released police complaints online in a similar campaign, some officers were found to have had more than 100 complaints each against them over their careers.  

Here, Kinebrew said, the complaints will be formatted similarly to how information of officer involved shootings is released with names of officers involved redacted.

In fact, much of the pertinent information in these complaints will be redacted and unavailable for the public – like the names of any civilians involved and exact addresses where incidents occurred.

But, districts, dates, times, a summary of the complaint and the determination of an investigation will all be available.

Why then, not include names of officers involved to allow the public to find out if there are individual officers amassing complaints regularly?

“The officers name won’t be on there, I’ll be honest with you,” he said, noting these names could yet be obtained through right to know requests. “We aren’t quite there yet in terms of instant access, but it could become available for someone that wants it and is going to seek other avenues to get it.”

Just how far the online complaints will go back isn’t determined yet either, but Kinebrew said the public should expect to see a lot of information. So far this year, he said, they have 398 complaints on file. That’s slightly more than the 362 at this point last year, and there was a total of 683 complaints filed against police in 2016.

The plan currently, he said, is to make these available online once investigations have been completed, but Kinebrew said, he hopes the system include complaints that are under investigation to allow the public to see the status of any complaint they made have made.

“What may end up happening is it is posted at the conclusion [of the investigation.] What we would like to see happen is that the complaints go up when they get submitted,” said Kinebrew.

Otherwise, Kinebrew said, how investigations are done into complaints against police will not change.

But, it will allow the public to have more information and, as an example, Kinebrew said, if a witness to an incident looks it up once these are available online, and disputes the outcome of the investigation, they could contact the police and get the investigation reopened.

“Maybe this will have benefits in that realm as well, where people will feel more comfortable coming to talk to the police,” he said.

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