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As coronavirus spreads, Philly ‘not turning a blind eye to crime,’ Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw says

Outlaw’s comments come as law enforcement agencies in region grapple with public safety and health concerns.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw answers questions outside the Police Administration Building during a news conference on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, to discuss police response to the coronavirus pandemic. In dark coat is District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw answers questions outside the Police Administration Building during a news conference on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, to discuss police response to the coronavirus pandemic. In dark coat is District Attorney Larry Krasner.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

As coronavirus concerns continued to grip the Philadelphia region Wednesday, law-enforcement officials emphasized that public safety was their priority while seeking to keep citizens, victims, and police officers safe and healthy.

“The department is not turning a blind eye to crime,” Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told reporters.

Even if they are not jailed, alleged offenders in some nonviolent crimes will be detained at the scene to be fingerprinted and identified, and police will submit paperwork for charges to be filed later. “No one will escape accountability for the crimes that they commit,” she said.

Officers will use discretion when classifying offenses as nonviolent, and will determine with a supervisor whether the person poses a threat to public safety, Outlaw said. Officers will also consider the severity of the incident, and the suspect’s criminal record and demeanor.

The commissioner also said the department is reassigning officers from plainclothes units to patrol duty to increase police visibility and deter crime. She said newly appointed Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton will oversee patrol operations.

Attendees at the news conference included District Attorney Larry Krasner, Chief Public Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, Deputy Managing Director for Criminal Justice and Public Safety Vanessa Garrett Harley, and Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney.

Before Outlaw spoke, a police officer cleaned her lectern with a sanitizing spray.

Her statements came after The Inquirer on Tuesday obtained a copy of an internal police memo outlining changes to arrest procedures. She called the leak of the memo “disrespectful,” and said it created “undue fear … and alarm in a time of crisis” and “was a huge distraction for our ability to work around the clock.”

The new measures are necessary to address other changes in the criminal-justice system, she said. “Right now, frankly, this is triage,” she said. “We had to conduct triage to determine how we best prioritize the use of our officers.”

At a news conference later Wednesday, Managing Director Brian Abernathy warned that “any criminal who believes there will be no consequences for criminal behavior will be sadly mistaken,” and said “arrests will be made on the street based on probable cause.”

The Philadelphia court system this week announced that all city courts would close until April 1, with exceptions such as accepting bail and emergency protection-from-abuse orders. Municipal Court ordered a stay through April 1 of all short-term and weekend jail sentences for misdemeanors.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court widened that mandate Wednesday and ordered all county courthouses closed to the public until April 3. Some court functions — such as preliminary arraignments, bail hearings, and emergency civil proceedings — will continue, but members of the public will be barred.

The court’s justices acknowledged the extreme nature of that step given the presumption that the legal system should be open to public scrutiny, but they cited a request from Gov. Tom Wolf and the state’s Department of Health.

The region’s federal courts have also suspended trials.

At Philadelphia’s federal courthouse, U.S. Magistrate Judge David Strawbridge still processed defendants Wednesday for initial court appearances on drug crimes, bank robberies, and other offenses, although the hearings were moved to a larger room and security staff permitted only 10 people to enter at a time.

Leigh Skipper, the chief federal defender, said his office would work to secure sentencing dates for clients who could receive time-served or minimal prison terms.

And Chief U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez further restricted the court’s operations in an order Wednesday sharply curtailing deadlines for grand jury indictments, postponing them until April 13, though he noted that deadlines for grand jury subpoenas still remain in effect.

Still, said U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain, “that doesn’t mean that arrests won’t be made and investigations won’t proceed. We’re not going to be emptying the federal prisons because of this crisis.”

In the suburbs

In the counties surrounding Philadelphia, law enforcement officials stressed that the coronavirus response has not disrupted how they confront crime.

Departments across Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties said dispatchers would handle by phone minor incidents not in progress, such as reports of thefts. Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said officers had discretion to issue summonses instead of jailing people for minor offenses.

But, Weintraub said, “if someone is a violent offender and is a risk to others, they still have authority to make the arrest.”

In Delaware County, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said police departments were closely monitoring the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, which has had to quarantine inmates and staff after two employees tested positive for the virus.

“Unless someone who is arrested during this emergency presents some threat to the community, they’re given bail and released,“ said Stollsteimer, noting how the virus had prompted an abrupt change in the office’s focus. “We had all these plans for proactive measures, meeting with people to discuss cases and other events. A lot of that is stopping for us as we switch to being reactive.”

In New Jersey

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal asked all county prosecutors and police chiefs to consider delaying the filing of criminal charges in cases that do not imminently effect public safety. He also urged them to consider whether pretrial detention is necessary, but noted that the safety of a victim and the public must remain the priority.

Camden County Police Chief Joseph Wysocki, in a message on the department’s Facebook page, said “officers will continue to patrol our city’s neighborhoods, proactively address crime and public safety issues, and respond to calls for assistance from residents,” but will need new safety measures.

Wysocki said grocery stores in Camden would have an increased police presence. Other departments in South Jersey, including Atlantic City, also said they would immediately begin to change how they handle service calls.

Staff writers Anna Orso and Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.