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Court orders Philly police to change quality-of-life enforcement to curb racial disparity

A federal judge ordered the change over the objection of the Philadelphia Police Department. City lawyers called it “draconian, unwarranted, and wholly unprecedented.”

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw at a news conference last month.
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw at a news conference last month.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Starting August 1 in Northwest Philadelphia, police officers will no longer be permitted to stop, question or detain people for “quality of life” violations, potentially including panhandling, smoking marijuana, urinating in public, or holding open liquor containers. Instead, police must first tell the offender to cease the behavior or move along.

The change is part of a three-month pilot program ordered by a federal judge overseeing decade-old civil-rights litigation over the city’s stop-and-frisk practices. It will go ahead despite objections from lawyers for the city, who called any prohibition on stops “draconian, unwarranted, and wholly unprecedented.”

Over the past decade, reforms already undertaken as a result of the lawsuit have yielded a 70% decline in pedestrian stops, according to David Rudovsky, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. When the lawsuit was filed, about half of stops were made without any reasonable suspicion, he said; that fell to 15% as of 2019. (One thing that didn’t change: Only a tiny fraction of stops actually reveal any weapons.)

But troubling racial disparities persisted — acknowledged by an expert retained by the city for the first time in 2020 — and the protocols outlined in the court’s order on Thursday are the first attempt to directly address them, Rudovsky said.

“Unless the city shows significant problems, we’ll ask the court to expand it citywide,” he added, potentially resulting in a sweeping change in how citizens interact with police. Quality-of-life violations account for an estimated 40% of all stops. Under the pilot, if a person does not comply with orders, police can go ahead with a stop.

The Philadelphia Police Department strongly objected to the policy shift, and argued it would be impossible to reliably assess the role of racial bias in policing.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council bill aims to curb police stops of Black drivers for minor infractions

In a court filing, it said barring stops “would deprive PPD of a valuable crime-fighting tool at a time when Philadelphia’s homicide rates have never been higher” and “could have grave consequences for policing in Philadelphia, and for the safety of Philadelphia citizens.”

The city’s response compiled a list of chronic quality-of-life violations in each police district, from dirt bikes and “boom cars” along Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia, to crowds of juveniles drinking at the Fox Chase Recreation Center, to “homeless issues such as aggressive behavior, public urination/defecation, and pop-up encampments” in Center City.

The order by U.S. District Court Judge John R. Padova, in the case Bailey v. City of Philadelphia, left it up to the parties to sort out which violations will be included in the three-month pilot project, and to define the circumstances in which a stop would be permitted.

Padova also ordered the Police Department to develop accountability and incentive programs aimed at curbing racially biased stops and frisks conducted without reasonable suspicion. He told the department to assign specially trained accountability officers to five police districts starting July 1, and to begin a random review of body-worn camera footage of pedestrian stops. And he required the department to report on whether it could analyze body-worn camera footage to identify stops that officers failed to document.

Reuben Jones, a community organizer who runs the group Frontline Dads, expressed skepticism, saying a cultural shift is needed more than incremental policy changes. But, he added, “Any time you’re not putting people in the system, that’s a good thing.”

He said such stops often appear arbitrary, and can lead to more serious encounters with the legal system.

One common scenario is “guys are shooting dice on the corner or there’s a group of guys smoking weed, and police come along and say, ‘Hey we have to see your ID,’ ” he said. “If you have some [legal] situation, then that’s probably not going to turn out good for you. If there’s any resistance to give up the ID, it can escalate. If there’s any perceived disrespect, it can escalate.”

Reducing the overall number of police encounters was a theme of last year’s mass protests.

Last October, Councilmember Isaiah Thomas introduced legislation that would prevent police from stopping drivers for many motor-vehicle-code violations, instead instructing them to issue citations by mail.

Conversations about how to advance that plan are ongoing, according to Max Weisman, Thomas’ communications director.

“We’re really trying to change the whole culture of how police and community relate to each other,” he said. “We want buy-in from all parties, and we want to do so in a way that doesn’t create any risk to public safety.”