Philly launches independent investigation of police tactics, use of force against protesters

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 01: Police form a line to disallow access for a protest march through Center City on June 1, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Demonstrations have erupted all across the country in response to George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, Minnesota while in police custody a week ago. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — City officials will open an independent investigation into the tactics and use of force that Philadelphia police used against protesters demonstrating against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and police brutality across the country.

The city will issue a request for proposals for an independent consultant to scrutinize the Philadelphia Police Department’s overall response to the protests, as well as individual officers’ conduct, stretching from when demonstrations began on May 30 through at least Monday, said Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw in a joint statement.

Officials did not provide details of the cost or timeline for the completion of the investigation. The probe’s findings and recommendations will be publicly released.

The findings will inform police reforms aimed at the department, Outlaw said in a released statement.

The commissioner said she has observed her officers acting both appropriately and unprofessional during the demonstrations.

“While I’ve witnessed many officers respond bravely and with compassion, I have also witnessed inappropriate use of force and other conduct that I do not condone — nor will I allow to continue by those who serve the Philadelphia Police Department,” Outlaw said.

The commissioner, the mayor and other city officials have come under pressure over officers’ heavy-handed tactics used against protesters, including using tear gas and pepper spray against demonstrators walking across Interstate 676 in Center City and

their disproportionate use of force against white and Black protesters. Looting and vandalism have followed some of the peaceful demonstrations.

Kenney, who was among those to authorize the use of tear gas on protesters on I-676 last week, said in a released statement that he has asked police brass to revise policies to clarify and limit when law enforcement can use tear gas and other “less lethal” munitions.

“This independent evaluation will help us get to the bottom of the varying accounts of what happened in situations where officers used force — including the incident on I-676 and looting incidents — and enable us to make necessary policy and protocol changes, such as additional limitations or prohibitions on certain types of force,” Kenney said in a statement.

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 which represents the city’s 6,500-member police force, did not immediately return a request for comment about the probe. McNesby has been uncharacteristically quiet about the reforms that have been proposed in the past few weeks.

As part of the probe, investigators will be expected to:

  • Use officers’ body-worn cameras, social media and news reports, among other things, to determine whether the department and individual officers’ actions, including the use of force, were in accordance with current police policies.
  • Interview eyewitnesses who observed police activity.
  • Assess whether new limitations were needed on certain types of use of force.
  • Provide monthly reports to the Inspector General’s Office and the City Solicitor’s Office.

The independent investigation was among the sweeping calls for reforms to the Philadelphia Police Department, which has a troubled history of discrimination and targeting people of color.

Last week, Kenney and City Council members united to introduce numerous police reforms, including nixing a proposed $19 million budget increase for the department and establishing an independent Police Oversight Commission.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared