WILMINGTON — Last year Wilmington Police Department saw a significant increase in “sustained” allegations, meaning incidents where an internal investigation of a complaint found an employee acted improperly, according to a draft version of the department’s 2018 Professional Standards Report.
The annual report, formerly known and still occasionally referred to as the Internal Affairs report, details the results of investigations into Wilmington Police Department employees stemming from both citizen and internal complaints. The report also gives an overview of the calls for service, arrests, and proportionate use of force by officers; until recently, the report also detailed vehicular pursuits and the number of “preventable” crashes.
Port City Daily recently obtained a draft version of the department’s 2018 report, which has not yet been released. The draft shows that citizen complaints doubled from 2017 and, while there have been more complaints in previous years, 2018 saw the most “sustained” complaints in over a decade — more than three times the number from the previous year.
The draft also notes a one-third increase in “use of force” incidents. While police officers use force in only a fraction of thousands of arrests and over a hundred thousand calls for service, the increase was enough to raise some concern, according to department emails.
Complaints, investigations, and ‘sustained’ incidents
The WPD Professional Standards Report, called the Internal Affairs Report until 2016, details citizen complaints, internal investigation, and “special investigations.” (You can find an archive of reports from previous years here.)
Citizen complaints stem mostly from interaction with officers on calls for service and arrests but can also pertain to officers’ off-duty conduct. Internal investigations and special investigations are initiated based on employee or supervisor information or are initiated by the Chief or a division commander.
WPD did not see an increase in internal investigations and did not note any police violations in 2018 or 2017 (there were 3 in 2016). The department saw 17 special investigations, a notable decrease from 40 in 2016 and 42 in 2017.
However, citizen complaints doubled — from 26 in 2017 to 53 in 2018 — the highest in several years. Each complaint can contain multiple allegations and can be against multiple officers. The 53 complaints filed last year contained 124 allegations.
The report found 34 of those allegations were “sustained,” meaning the department determined there was improper conduct. It’s the highest number of sustained allegations in the last decade.
The 2018 professional standards report, unlike previous years, does not provide a breakdown of the type of complaint; in the last three years, notable categories have been “conduct towards the public” and “on duty performance.”
As the report notes, citizen complaints can be vague, unclear, or outright fabricated. The report found that officers were exonerated in 50 of the allegations and that 21 of the allegations lacked sufficient evidence to prove or disprove improper conduct. In 19 of the allegations, the report found claims were “false allegations.”
The increase in sustained allegations did not correlate with an increase in disciplinary actions. According to the draft report, the department took fewer disciplinary actions compared to the previous year: 47 in 2018 compared to 51 in 2017.
Those actions included one resignation and two terminations, one demotion, four suspensions, 11 counselings, and one officer relieved of a car; 2017 saw roughly similar actions.
Zero complaints in 2016, significant increase in 2018
Each section of the annual report is accompanied by commentary, putting significant changes in context.
For example, after seeing between 50 and 65 complaints between 2013 and 2015, with about 25 sustained allegations each year, 2016 saw complaints cut in half, and the department did report a single sustained allegation. The report attributes the 100-percent decrease to “increased use of video cameras during public interaction” between officers and the public. The 2018 draft also states that the use of body-cameras “brought citizen complaint numbers down in past years” – presumably by providing a clear narrative of alleged incidents.
As for the “notable increase” in complaints for 2018, the report cites “an emerging local and national effort to encourage agency accountability” which has “had an impact on the number of people who feel comfortable lodging complaints.”
The report has a positive takeaway from the increase, noting “while this may seem unorthodox we believe that it helps to enhance trust and confidence among our citizens.”
According to city emails, a captain in the criminal investigation division also suggested the increase could be “explained by a rising young staff that is strictly following the policy of fielding citizen complaints, instead of pointing/directing the citizen to someone else.” Another suggestion was “societal stress experienced during Hurricane Florence.”
(Editor’s note: The jump in “sustained” incidents in 2013 appears to have resulted from the department’s shifting from evaluating complaints as a whole to analyzing individual allegations within each complaint; the 2013 report does not address this, and there is no year-over-year presented, but from 2013 onward complaints and allegations are discussed and tracked separately.)
Use of force increase
WPD’s annual reports include the percentage of calls for service — and more specifically arrests — that involved a “use of force.” The vast majority of arrests – between 96 and 98 percent – occur without any use of force whatsoever. The exceptions, however, have the potential to have serious consequences, and so while the percentages are small, Professional Standards focuses on them in the annual reports.
Use of force statistics cover a broad range of actions, including striking with bare hands, using tasers or other non-lethal weapons, and deploying a K-9 unit. It also includes “lethal force display only” (LFDO), which essentially means removing a firearm from its holster in an attempt to encourage a suspect to comply with commands.
Historically, WPD reported LFDO differently than some other agencies.
The 2014 Internal Affairs Report notes that WPD’s “Use of Force policy requires officers to complete a Use of Force report anytime they display a firearm. Other agencies only require officers to report when a firearm is pointed at an individual. This difference in how data is reported has inflated our Use of Force numbers.”
The department began using a new reporting policy in 2016 and it appears to have made an impact, dropping the percentage of nearly a full point between 2014 when the issue was noted and 2017.
The adjusted reporting policy used to calculate use of force is part of what makes the increase in use of force in the 2018 draft report notable.
In 2018, the department completed about 600 fewer arrests than the previous year — dropping from 5,269 to 4,471 — but used force more often — 185 times in 2018 compared to 153 in 2017. So, despite being involved in fewer potentially physical situations, use of force increase by about a third relative to the number of arrests.
The report breaks down specific types of force, showing that the increase since the previous year came largely from “soft empty hand” strikes – increasing from 82 to 119 – and “taser probes” – increasing from 43 to 54.
The increase is small, from 3 to 4 percent, but significant, and while the report notes only the LFDO continued to decrease, one captain noted in a departmental email that “a 1 percent increase in overall use of force is a bit concerning.” The officer goes on to speculate that Hurricane Florence actions could have possibly skewed data; he also suggests violence associated with increased use of crack cocaine and phencyclidine (PCP) might haved played a role.
Bias and grievances
Allegations of racial and gender bias receive special attention in annual reports. The 2018 draft report notes there were eight bias-related accusations, six involving traffic stops. The report notes “all the allegations were thoroughly investigated” and officers were exonerated in seven cases and in one incident there was insufficient evidence to sustain or dispel an allegation.
According to the 2018 draft report, there were no grievances filed with the department, although several commons issues – disputes over pay, disciplinary actions, assignments and performance reviews – are not permitted in departmental grievances. Some of these issues may be handled by the City of Wilmington’s Civil Service Commission.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.