Philadelphia Curtails Public Records on Police Complaints

Mayor Jim Kenney promised a new system to show the public “how the city handles complaints against police officers,” but finds that the new policy removes the names of officers from reports of closed investigations.

When Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signed an order in August to post online civilian complaints against Philadelphia police officers, he touted it as a “commonsense reform” that would build trust between the police department and the communities it serves. “This data will show residents in an easily accessible, online format how the city handles complaints against police officers,” Kenney said. Just don’t ask which police officers, reports As it turns out, the policy reversed a decades-old practice that treated closed investigations as public records, complete with the names of officers and the citizens who filed the complaints. The Kenney administration, in consultation with police brass, inserted language into the executive order to remove those names, among other information.

Officers who are subjects of the complaints are identified only by first and last initials, or sometimes only first initials. Other officers are anonymous. “This is a bold attempt by the Police Department to shield itself from public scrutiny and the potential of outside agencies to investigate accusations of police misconduct,” said civil-rights attorney Paul Hetznecker. Since the executive order went into effect in November, the police department has been reluctant or has refused to identify officers who are the subject of complaints. Officials said police would continue to provide complaint case numbers if a reporter sought complaints against a specific officer. The reporter could then tie redacted complaint files to individual officers. Still, officials have provided shifting explanations of what information will be available to the media and the public. The Rev. Mark Tyler, a community activist and pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church, said, “It’s odd that when everyone in the world is going for more transparency, to say, ‘Let’s give them less’. I just don’t get it.”