Philadelphia police officials brought the latest installment in a series of meetings with the department’s Internal Affairs Unit to residents in one of the most crime-ridden communities last week.
Deputy Commissioner Stephen T. Johnson, of the city’s internal affairs unit, educated a room full of local residents in how to communicate effectively with his department.
Yet, when the time came for the public to present the officials with questions and concerns, residents confronted Johnson with comments about violence in the community — violence that erupted in a fatal shooting less than an hour after the meeting and just blocks away.
Johnson led the meeting with the goal of helping residents understand how to communicate concerns about police procedure or the actions of police officers back to internal affairs.
Johnson discussed how every complaint against police officers is reviewed by internal affairs officers and not only could an officer be reprimanded for improper conduct, but the officer could be criminally charged.
“This job is a public trust,” said Johnson. “It’s all about the community having faith in us … We are the good guys, once we cross that line, we are no better than the criminals we are locking up.”
Asked about why the police decided to hold these meetings, Johnson noted that there have been some recent, high-profile cases of corruption focusing on members of the Philadelphia Police Department.
To combat these issues, last October, he said, Commissioner Charles Ramsey provided internal affairs with 26 new officers. Johnson said this full staff will help law-enforcement officials to police their own.
“This is something that’s long overdue,” he said. “We are going through so much adversity now and one of the things we have to do better is internal affairs.”
Yet, in Kensington, near where the neighborhood meets Port Richmond, locals seemed less concerned with how to fill out paperwork and police forms.
Instead, those in attendance wanted to know how police dealt with shootouts on area blocks or why law enforcement officials couldn’t remove bodies of murder victims from the street more quickly in order to hide them from the eyes of children and the elderly.
It seems, if no one is killed or injured, shootouts in the area seem to go unreported or perhaps even uninvestigated by police, residents said.
In fact, this point was vividly illustrated about a half-hour later and only a few blocks away from the Salvation Army building at 1924 E. Allegheny Ave. where the meeting was held, when a man lay dead after being shot by police.
That shooting, in which officers responded to a report of a man with a gun, occurred at about 8:15 p.m. on the 2000 block of East Birch Street.
Albert Purnell, 19, of the 1500 block of Mayland Street in the city’s West Oak Lane neighborhood, was pronounced dead at the scene at about 8:29 p.m.
Police allege he brandished a gun at two officers. The gun Purnell had allegedly pointed at the officers was recovered at the scene, said Officer Jillian Russell, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Police.
Monday’s community meeting ended just before 8 p.m.
One group of area residents who attended last week’s meeting had concerns about how police could stop random shootings in the area.
They believed that, if no one ended up shot or dead, police seemed unable to stop drug dealers from exchanging fire in their neighborhood.
“They own the corners,” said a concerned resident of Kensington, who asked only to be called Carol. “It’s just dangerous for the kids.”
She said that often she and her family hear rival drug dealers exchanging gunfire in the area of Jasper and Somerset streets.
“But, when the police come, there’s nothing left to show them because they (drug dealers) take off and hide,” she continued.
Capt. Thomas Davidson, of the city’s 24th Police District, said he would investigate her concerns and have police patrol the area.
Bill Summers, North Philadelphia site coordinator for the city’s Weed and Seed program, expressed a concern that he’d heard from others in the community.
Often, he said, victims of shootings are left in the open while police investigate an incident.
Though, Summers said, he understood police were doing their jobs, he wanted to express concern for the youngsters and elderly residents of the community who are too often confronted with the harsh realities of street violence.
Capt. Frank Vanore Jr., of the 25th Police District, was on hand during the meeting and said, unfortunately, due to the nature of investigation and forensic work that needs to be done, after a person has been declared deceased, police need to leave the body in place in order to study the crime scene.
“If there is no sign of life, we have to leave them there,” said Vanore. “But, of course, we don’t want to leave that out in the open for children or anyone else to see.”
At the end of the meeting, Johnson discussed how residents could make complaints to internal affairs.
Complaint forms are available at any police district — a person doesn’t need to go to the district where the officer they are complaining about is assigned — or download the form from www.phillypolice.com.
Also, residents can contact internal affairs directly at the office’s misconduct hotline at 215-685-3009 or through e-mail at email@example.com.
Mostly, Johnson said, these complaints can be made anonymously, but anyone leaving a complaint would need to leave some kind of contact information so that internal affairs investigators can thoroughly evaluate the claim and get further statements, if necessary, to obtain additional information.
“We need to look at the totality of the circumstances,” said Johnson.
After the meeting, Carol, who was concerned about shootings in the neighborhood, said she appreciated the officers taking the time to listen to residents, especially here, where criminal issues plague the community day in and day out.
“I just hope something good comes of this,” she said.