Report Finds Black Philly Police Officers Most Likely to Shoot at Black Unarmed Suspects

March 25, 2015 Updated: October 8, 2018

Police officers in Philadelphia tend to shoot at unarmed black suspects more than unarmed white suspects, and the officers involved in those cases were more likely black, a recent report found.

Among all the races, unarmed black suspects were the most likely to be shot by officers. But the rate differed slightly depending on who was behind the barrel.

The rate at which black officers shot at unarmed black suspects was 11.6% of the time, while the rate for white officers was 6.8%. Hispanic officers had the highest rate, at 16.7 percent. There were no reported shootings involving Asian officers.

Officer shootings were more likely to take place in high-crime areas of the city, where police activity is higher and the likelihood of encountering a violent suspect is higher.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) released a 173-page report Monday evaluating the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of deadly force. They found that black suspects made up the overwhelming majority (81%) of the 394 incidents where officers shot someone during the period from 2007 to 2014.

The Philly police department explained on its website that officers use deadly force when engaged in dangerous situations where they feel “all lesser means of force have failed or could not be reasonably employed.”

Report found that black suspects made up the majority (81%) of the 394 incidents where officers shot someone during the period from 2007 to 2014.

Suspects were unarmed in 15% of all shootings in that period. Officers fired in those instances mostly due to misperceiving the suspect as being armed—known in law enforcement circles as a “threat perception failure” (TPF)—and getting into altercations where the suspect tried to grab the officer’s gun or used great physical force on the officer, according to the report.

The entire force has 6,526 sworn officers, more than 57% of whom are white. Black officers make up 32.8%, while Hispanic and Asian officers make up 8.2 and 1.5% respectively, according to statistics provided by the police department.

But the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, which conducted the study, also concluded that the differences in officer TPF rates among suspects of different races were not statistically significant, thus stopping short of suggesting racial bias. For example, they did not find significant differences in the rate at which white officers misinterpreted a threat for black suspects, versus Hispanic, white, or Asian suspects.

Federal investigators refrained from offering any explanation for the higher rates of officer shootings on black suspects. Nonetheless, the DOJ called on the Philadelphia police department to repair the distrust felt among minority communities, beginning with getting officers at least six hours of unconscious bias training. The course is meant to teach officers how to recognize their assumptions that are based on a person’s ethnicity.

“It is clear that the black community is disproportionately impacted by extreme violence involving the police. The department must remain cognizant of this fact and improve academy training to better prepare officers for policing in a multicultural society,” the report said.

The shooting death of black teenager, Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., has since brought widespread public scrutiny of law enforcement across the country, especially when officers shoot unarmed suspects.

The Philly police department sought out federal authorities to review their use-of-force policies after it saw a rise in police shootings in the past several years, despite a simultaneous decline in violent assaults against officers.

The report included a long list of recommendations to fix cracks in the police department’s training, investigations of police shootings, and implementation of use-of-force policies—in order to avoid lethal encounters with police and regain the public’s trust in the police department’s integrity.

Federal investigators also found that the use of tasers was helpful in resolving confrontations with armed suspects without killing them. But they suggested that the department could use more training in “de-escalation” tactics, which focus on negotiating with suspects to persuade them to cooperate with police. Currently, the de-escalation training is “little more than lecture and observations,” the report said.

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