Philly police audit finds no strategic plan for staffing issues, departmental reviews in department

The report identified flaws including haphazard deployment based on gut decisions, outdated technology and using sworn officers to perform admin tasks

By Anna Orso
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Police Department doesn't conduct formal evaluations of its main patrol and crime-fighting strategy, creating an inconsistent patchwork of officer deployment across the city as it's in the midst of a persistent gun violence crisis.

And the department, which has been plagued for more than a year by severe understaffing, doesn't know how many positions it needs to meet its public-safety goals.

That's according to City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, whose office on Tuesday released a long-awaited audit of the Police Department and its nearly $800 million budget. The year-and-a-half-long review identified flaws across the department, including haphazard deployment too often based on gut decisions; outdated systems and technology; and a trend of using sworn, armed officers to perform administrative work.

The deficiencies have material effects on how the department responds to crime, the review concluded, including a low homicide clearance rate, slow 911 response times that are worse in communities of color, and a dearth of community input and trust.

And staffing levels have reached such a critical low that some districts deploy just a dozen patrol officers at any given time.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw wrote in a response that she believes the report showed a "thorough review." The department said it's "actively reviewing" recruiting methods, has started to identify positions that could be filled with civilians, and is exploring ways to modernize its procedures.

As for its crime-fighting and patrol strategy, the department said in its response that it does track crime and deployment data. But Rhynhart contends the data collection isn't used to effectively adjust strategies or respond to shifting crime trends.

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The findings are outlined in an 85-page report that was conducted by Rhynhart's office in partnership with two consulting firms, the California-based Center for Policing Equity, and a community council of Philadelphians. The firms talked to more than 30 members of the department as part of its review, but did not interview Outlaw.

The review was requested by members of City Council in December 2020, just six months after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd set off nationwide protests and political discourse over how police are funded. That year, Council voted to cancel a proposed increase to the police budget, and the department was flat-funded.

The force, which receives more city dollars than any other department, got a budget increase this year to cover pay increases for officers and a handful of technological upgrades, meaning its now $788 million budget is about $150 million more than in 2016, when Mayor Jim Kenney first took office.

Rhynhart has long been critical of the Kenney administration's response to gun violence in the city, which spiked in mid-2020 and led to last year being the deadliest on record. Homicides are continuing at a similar pace this year. Kenney has defended his plan, saying his administration has deployed both short and long-term strategies but is stymied by state law that prevents the city from implementing gun restrictions.

Kenney's second term ends in January 2024, and Rhynhart is expected to join a crowded field of Democrats battling to succeed him. Under city rules, she would need to resign her post as Controller to seek the Mayor's Office.

Here's more on the findings and recommendations.

Police haven't reviewed their main crime-fighting strategy

Outlaw has repeatedly touted the department's main patrol strategy, "Operation Pinpoint," as a data-driven approach to fighting crime. Commanders are instructed to deploy resources to so-called "pinpoint zones" based on intelligence about where violence has occurred. In some cases, that means officers are expected to patrol crime hot spots on foot.

The strategy launched in 2019, was a key component of the Kenney administration's antiviolence strategy, and top police officials often mention it during public briefings on the department's response to gun violence.

In 2020, the program was expanded from seven pinpoint zones to 45, but Rhynhart's review said that the decision to rapidly scale the strategy "may have impaired PPD's ability to effectively implement it."

But no formal assessment of the strategy has been conducted. The department didn't provide any evaluation of the program or indicate one is underway. Police weren't able to provide estimates of the number of officers they would need to effectively respond to crime in given zones.

While districts keep track of crime, arrests, and incidents within the pinpoint zones, the review said that their weekly assessments don't contain information about officer deployment in relation to those incidents.

And while the strategy ostensibly relies on foot patrols, some commanders said foot patrols aren't possible because of staffing limitations or the geographic size of areas that officers are expected to cover.

Most officers aren't on patrol

According to Rhynhart's office, about 2,500 officers on the now 6,000-member force are assigned to patrol. After accounting for officers who are injured or out of duty for other reasons, most of the city's police districts average between 11 and 22 officers on patrol in the neighborhood at any given time.

The number of officers on patrol declined significantly after the pandemic and amid an exodus of officers, but the review found that those declines weren't uniformly felt.

For example, the largest overall decline in patrol was in the city's East Division, which includes the Kensington neighborhood that has long struggled with open-air drug sales and violent turf wars. It had nearly 25% fewer officers patrolling this year than in 2017.

The smallest decline in patrol deployment was in the city's Central Division, which includes Center City.

Majority of the budget is spent on staffing

In its request to Rhynhart's office, Council members said they "have little insight into how PPD is spending its funds."

The answer is that 95% of its funding is spent on personnel costs like salaries and benefits. Rhyhart's office found that while its total police budget is, per capita, on par with other large police departments, its spending on personnel costs was slightly higher than most. Other large departments averaged about 90%, they found.

But despite that enormous slice of its overall budget, staffing is among the largest problems the police department is facing.

The investigation found that the number of uniformed officers declined by about 500 in the last three years, bringing the force to below 6,000 sworn officers. The total could fall below 5,200 within the next three years if the department doesn't dramatically increase recruitment and retention, the review found.

The Inquirer this year found that the department, with thinning ranks in nearly every unit, is facing a wave of impending retirements and the number of cadets set to graduate from the academy doesn't come close to keeping pace.

That's compounded by injury claims that are keeping hundreds of paid officers out of work — driven in part by some exploiting a disability program. Rhynhart's office found that there were more than 570 officers unavailable for duty as of this summer.

Skyrocketing 911 response times

The review found that response times to 911 calls have fallen precipitously, and the trend is worse in communities of color.

The department strives to answer all 911 calls within 10 seconds. But between 2017 and 2021, the percentage of calls answered in that time decreased citywide from 95% to 68%. That decline coincided with an exodus of call-takers and shake-ups in the radio room.

Rhynhart's review compared response times by district, and found that the longest response times were in districts with the highest concentration of Black and brown residents. For example, the majority-Black 12th, 19th, and 35th police districts, along with the majority-Hispanic 25th district, have consistently longer response times than majority-white districts.

The review said that the disparity exists even when analysts controlled for call volume and crime rates. The review recommended the department consider an additional external assessment of its 911 system.

Outdated systems and inefficiencies

Reviewers also found that the department too often relies on outdated human-resources systems, manual data entry, and paper.

For example, personnel information and employment records for every department employee is kept on index cards in addition to electronically. Vacancies are tracked manually in a Microsoft Excel file. Civilians who work at the department record their time on physical timesheets, and then that information is manually input into electronic systems.

And a handful of sworn officers' full-time job is delivering inter-department memos between districts.
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