Can police reform happen in Philadelphia?

Last December, Brandon Tate-Brown was killed by Philadelphia police after being pulled over for driving with his headlights off. His family is not alone in their pain -- there have been 394 shootings involving the police in Philadelphia since 2007. Despite efforts to review and reform police training and transparency, the changes are far from reality at this point. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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    The death of a 25-year-old black man, Freddie Gray, in Baltimore is the most recent in a string of stories spotlighting use of force by police.

    Many cities across the country are trying to improve relations between police and the citizens they protect. In Philadelphia, a recent Justice Department report found nearly once a week over the past eight years Philadelphia police opened fire on suspects, who are almost always African-American.

    Hari Sreenivasan has more.

    TANYA BROWN-DICKERSON, Mother of Brandon Tate-Brown: On December 15, 2014, I was going to work. I got to work a little late. I got there, I want to say 6:26. And I was getting ready to cut my car off. And I heard a black male, on the radio, a black male, 26 years old, gunned down by police at the 6600 block of Frankford Avenue, driving a white Dodge Charger.

    So when I heard that, unfortunately, I knew that it was my son.


    Last December, Tanya Brown's son Brandon Tate-Brown had been killed, shot by Philadelphia polices, after being pulled over for driving with his headlights off.


    To know that my son suffered like that and that I wasn't there to protect him or lay my body on him, and them probably kill me too, it breaks my heart. I'm his mother. And I couldn't do nothing to help him.


    Tanya Brown is not alone in her pain. There have been 394 shootings involving the Philadelphia police since 2007. In many years, the department saw more police shootings than New York City, a city that is five times its size.

    Charles Ramsey is the Philadelphia police commissioner.

  • CHARLES RAMSEY, Commissioner, Philadelphia Police Department:

    There are changes that need to be made. And we need to make them. And we can't ignore them and pretend as if everything's OK, because it's not.


    Two years ago, Ramsey recognized the crisis, and commissioned the U.S. Department of Justice to review Philadelphia's police shootings. The report documents the harsh reality that has plagued this city and included 91 recommended changes.


    You know, we have done a good job in lowering crime in this country. But what we weren't very good at was understanding the consequences of some of the police actions and the collateral damage. You may have reduced or suppressed crime, but have you alienated the larger community?

    And if the answer to that is yes, then you need to reevaluate your tactics and your strategies.


    The new guidelines involve a series of changes in training, oversight and transparency. Commissioner Ramsey has pledged to rebuild the trust and uproot the tense culture between police and the poor communities where they serve.


    That's success, is when we don't have the kind of conversations we are having today that are really centered around mistrust. And it's not just mistrust of police. It's mistrust of the entire system. And that's got to change.


    But these changes are far from a reality, and the death of Tanya Brown's son is a prime example. While the department says it is working on transparency, it refuses to publicly name the officers involved or to release the full video of the shooting.

    It said that Brown was shot after lunging for a gun found in the passenger seat of his vehicle. But his mother, who has seen the video in private, has publicly disputed this interpretation. Last month, it was announced that the two officers in Brown's shooting wouldn't face charges.

    That same evening, Commissioner Ramsey, the district attorney and other officials attended a community event in North Philadelphia. Protesters upset by the Brown shooting rallied.

  • ASA KHALIF, Protester:

    We were fired up. We were there to ask those questions, who killed Brandon Tate-Brown, and to demand for the tapes to be released.


    The incident now symbolizes the divide between the police and its citizens.

    T.J. Ghose teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

    TOORJO GHOSE, University of Pennsylvania: You saw what happened when Chief Ramsey went out into the community and tried to have a conversation. Right? There's anger. And there's justifiable anger. So it has to be not the police talking at the community or the community shouting back. Right? It has to be across the table, where people feel like their voices are being heard and that they are actually implementing policy right there at the table.


    The tension is not new.

    Thirty years ago, the Philadelphia police bombed the house of a radical activist group. For some Philadelphians, that was the beginning of a pattern of intimidation by police. Incidents of excessive force, like what happened on this very street corner in 2010, only continued to deepen the mistrust that the citizens of Philadelphia had with their police.

    This video captured Askia Sabur, a North Philadelphia resident, being beaten by police in 2010.

  • ASKIA SABUR, West Philadelphia Resident:

    He police split the back of my head. I had six staples, messed my back up, to the point where I can't walk straight. Sometimes, my — my — the alignment in my spine gets crooked. So, he really did a number on me.


    After 18 months in jail, Sabur was acquitted of all charges and won an $850,000 settlement against the Philly police.

  • BISHOP DWAYNE ROYSTER, Executive Director, P.O.W.E.R. Philadelphia:

    For far too long, police departments around the country have been, sort of, you know, you can't touch them. We need the police. And we have created a system where the police officers are above the law. And we can no longer allow them to do that. They have to operate within the law, just as much as we expect every other citizen to operate within the law.


    A lifelong Philadelphian, and regular here at the Temple Rainbow Diner, Bishop Royster wasn't surprised when he read the Justice Department report.


    As a black man in Philadelphia, I'm like, yes, sure, this is it, absolutely, and was frightened and concerned about what we were reading about the internalized operations of the Philadelphia Police Department.

    It always appeared that our best choice was always lethal force, instead of trying to find other ways to work with those in the community that were committing crimes.


    The commissioner cites the violence during the community meeting as a reason not to release officers' names.


    It was all caught on tape by media and chairs being thrown and so forth. And I'm going to turn around and give you the names of two police officers and think that there's not going to be any negative consequences? Nah.

    I'm not saying it's perfect. And I'm sure I get a lot of criticism around that, and that's fine. But I have to also do what I think is — in this case, is in everyone's best interests, at least as far as from my perspective.


    But, from Tanya Brown's perspective, she's been left with nothing but questions.


    You couldn't tase him and handcuff him? Was it necessary to shoot him not in the leg or arm? You felt it necessary? You're trained. You know how to shoot. It had to be in his head right here, above his ear? It had to be? No. I don't think my son should be dead right now.


    A belief that binds a mother, the police and the community.

    I'm Hari Sreenivasan for the PBS NewsHour in Philadelphia.

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