George Floyd protests

‘Unprepared’ Philly police violated use-of-force and tear gas policies during summer protests, review finds

The report also found the department’s lack of planning left officers vulnerable.

A protester kicks a tear gas canister fired by police during protests on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Philadelphia

A protester kicks a tear gas canister fired by police during protests on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Philadelphia

Matt Rourke / AP Photo
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More than six months after social justice protests roiled the city, an independent review has found the Philadelphia Police Department’s response suffered a lack of preparedness, a breakdown in the command chain and a slew of other shortcomings.

Philly police violated use-of-force policies several times over the first two weeks of June, the report found.

“The city and PPD were simply not prepared to address unanticipated mass protests coupled with civil unrest occurring in multiple locations throughout the city,” according to the report released Wednesday.

Starting on May 30, the first two weeks of protests in Philadelphia after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resulted in 723 arrests and hundreds of injuries. They inflamed a sense of distrust between police and community residents, particularly in predominantly Black areas of the city, according to the report, which runs more than 100 pages and was authored by a local law firm and a Virginia nonprofit.

The report also found that PPD’s “fallacious” planning put officers unnecessarily at risk.

A chaotic command structure and pre-existing staffing limitations placed a dangerous burden on officers, who occasionally put themselves at risk while responding to looting incidents and demonstrations, according to the report. More than 60 officers were injured during the two-week period, the review found, 42 requiring hospitalization.

The PPD’s missteps and the subsequent fallout over these two weeks were largely documented by local media. Police lost control of large crowds in entire sections of the city. SWAT officers used tear-gassed protesters on the Vine Street Expressway and along 52nd Street in West Philly. A veteran police commander struck a protester near the head with his service baton.

Along with a comprehensive timeline of the events, the report offers more than 60 recommendations for the department, from better police commands to a “refresher” training on crowd control.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw commissioned the independent review in the wake of widespread criticism, particularly over the use of tear gas on protesters who’d descended onto the I-676 highway, also known as the Vine Street Expressway.

The analysis was conducted by Philly law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP along with the CNA Institute for Public Research, a Virginia-based nonprofit research organization.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is representing over 150 litigants who were involved in the confrontations on the Vine Street Expressway and on 52nd Street in West Philly, where tear gas was also deployed. Another suit was later filed by law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin on behalf of 41 plaintiffs who were tear-gassed on I-676.

“I look forward to implementation of the recommendations — especially those related to use of force — and I’m confident the Commissioner will work aggressively toward this,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “I fully accept the criticisms in the report of how our administration conducted itself this past summer.

Here’s an overview of key findings and recommendations from the report, a number of which are already being implemented, Outlaw said.

Tear gas decisions should come from the commissioner only

Outlaw “explicitly required” that her commanders get her prior approval before deploying tear gas, but in two out of three instances during the June protests, that didn’t happen.

Only the police commissioner or their designee should sign off on the use of tear gas, the report recommends.

The department’s SWAT unit should also “receive refresher training” on crowd control. Numerous witnesses reported police did not give verbal warnings before using the chemical agent — in violation of standard policy.

(Outlaw and Kenney subsequently implemented a moratorium on the use of tear gas to disperse crowds.)

Use-of-force policies should be updated

The department should draft more specific policy directives detailing when officers can use baton strikes, Tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, flash bang grenades and other less-than-lethal munitions, as well as provide updated training on those practices, the report recommends.

Process for monitoring protests needs review

The city should review how it issues permits for large-scale protests and adapts for unpermitted protests, the report recommends.

The department’s Civil Affairs Unit, which handles protest response on the ground, should also improve outreach to “local activist groups likely to lead or to help organize protests and marches without City approval.”

Police should use social media and other tools “more accurately estimate protest size, threats and criminal intent.”

A citywide plan is needed for mass protests in multiple locations

One of the primary barriers in the police response to the first two weeks of June was found to be the coinciding protests occurring at multiple locations. The department should develop a plan and practice it throughout the year, the report recommends.

Emergency commanders should be given more flexibility with personnel

The report found a shortage of police personnel and other resources in the early days of the protests. Part of this could be solved, the reviewers found, by authorizing some commanders “to cancel days off and call officers off back to work.”

Use of force during protest response was excessive

The review found “several instances” in which police violated the department policy in using batons and other less-than-lethal force in response to protests.

Officers used collapsible batons, also called ASPs, on 37 occasions during the period of review. Another 11 reports detailed officers using punches, kicks and choke holds. But those blows “did not have the desired optimal outcomes” to help make arrests or diffuse a situation.

The review also singles out one particularly egregious incident of baton use, by former Staff Inspector Joseph Bologna, who was charged with aggravated assault after video showed him striking a Temple student near the head on June 1.

“Even more concerning about this instance is that the officer was a veteran commander with a

rank of Inspector,” the investigators wrote, without citing Bologna by name. “This raises the question of whether there is an overall understanding across line officers as to how and when to properly use batons.”

Bologna was fired from the department following his arrest. The criminal case remains ongoing but faces some delays due to COVID-related court closures, according to court records.

Outlaw revised the department’s use-of-force policy on June 2 after police clashed with protesters that weekend.

Want some more? Explore other George Floyd protests stories.

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