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Philly police were flagged for hundreds of unjustified stops, frisks. Will reforms follow?

Black residents are 50% more likely than whites to be stopped without reasonable suspicion, an analysis of Philadelphia police data found.

Police officers guard the Municipal Services Building as hundreds protest racism and police violence in Center City Philadelphia on July 4, 2020. Racist policing patterns have been a central theme of protests in Philadelphia.
Police officers guard the Municipal Services Building as hundreds protest racism and police violence in Center City Philadelphia on July 4, 2020. Racist policing patterns have been a central theme of protests in Philadelphia.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

It’s been nearly a decade since civil-rights lawyers sued Philadelphia police over unjustified stops and frisks, mostly of Black citizens — and they say the racial disparities are still glaring. Black residents are 50% more likely than whites to be stopped without reasonable suspicion and 40% more likely to be frisked without cause, they state in their latest semiannual monitoring report, required by the consent decree in the case and submitted to a federal judge in July.

Now, as the city has acknowledged the need for reform, advocates are pushing for a new set of far-reaching changes, including department-wide training and accountability measures, intensive interventions in problem police districts, and, most notably, an expanded 311 system that would bring non-police responders to address quality-of-life complaints.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s spokesperson Mike Dunn said the administration had not committed to specific changes. But Dunn said in an email, “The events of 2020 have made it clear that we need to shift the focus of our ongoing reform efforts — centering the goal of racial equity at the forefront. This includes but is not limited to pedestrian stops. Our work will also encompass vehicular stops and racial disparities in health care and social services.”

Kenney campaigned on ending illegal stop-and-frisk practices, and Dunn noted that Philadelphia had reduced baseless pedestrian stops by 92% since 2016.

That still leaves around 10,000 stops a year without documented reasonable suspicion.

Last fall, the Police Department began rolling out a graduated disciplinary system for unjustified stops. So far, 247 verbal warnings have been given to police officers, and 171 more to supervisors. No officers have received formal discipline.

Staff Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesperson, said some of the stops might have been constitutional but were insufficiently documented.

Across all pedestrian stops, with or without proper justification, the “hit rate” for finding drugs or guns was about 4% last year, according to an analysis for the plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU and the civil-rights law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg. Philadelphia police made nearly 77,000 pedestrian stops in 2019. In New York City, a police department five times larger than Philly’s made just 13,459 stops last year, with a hit rate of about 34%.

Racial disparities compound the problem. Black residents are 44% of Philadelphia’s population but account for 71% of pedestrian stops. Lawyer David Rudovsky said the city has long tried to explain that by pointing to different crime rates in various neighborhoods.

“The non-racial reasons we might apply don’t explain the racial disparities,” he said. “The conclusion is that there is racial bias going on in terms of who is being stopped and frisked. This has been an issue in the city for 10 years.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia police are searching more cars for marijuana — but finding less of it, critics say

Dunn disputed that there is clear bias. While the city acknowledged that in 2019 there was “a significant association between detainee race and the likelihood of being stopped,” he said, it did not find that association in previous reviews.

At a City Council hearing in June, City Solicitor Marcel Pratt went further, acknowledging bias among “some” officers: “We know that the truth is that some police do target people of color, particularly Black men, for stop and frisk,” he said.

According to the analysis, about 2,600 officers made stops, and of them just 260, or 10%, accounted for 50% of all stops. Sixteen of the 50 most active officers were in one compact police service area in the 24th District in Kensington.

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The reports produced in response to the federal consent decree do not track vehicle stops, which reached their highest number in at least five years in 2019, peaking at more than 30,000 per month in August.

After a series of Inquirer articles raised questions about the high numbers of stops of Black drivers — and the Defender Association of Philadelphia’s accusation that police were routinely lying about smelling marijuana to justify vehicle stops — the number plummeted.

“After the Inquirer story appeared, PPD leadership directed commanders to clarify and reinforce vehicular stop protocols, ensuring that the protocols are more uniformly applied across all districts. This led to a reduction in the number of such stops,” Kinebrew said.

The number of vehicle stops was about 16,000 a month, and pedestrian stops were close to 3,000 per month, before the coronavirus pandemic hit Philadelphia and curtailed stops even more sharply. But the racial gap persisted: Black people accounted for more than 75% of those stopped and searched or frisked as of March, the defender found in a recent analysis.

A new study of Philadelphia police stops by Villanova University sociologist Lance Hannon and Philadelphia Bail Fund’s Malik Neal attempts to settle the question of whether bias is behind the disparity or whether the numbers are skewed for other reasons, such as localized crime trends. It examined the number of stops during daylight and those under the “veil of darkness,” when race is harder to discern — and found “the relative odds of a Black motorist being stopped are about 11% less under the ‘veil of darkness.‘”

Their conclusion: “Regardless of the racial composition of the surrounding area, Black males were more likely to be stopped when sunlight increased the visibility of the driver’s race than were white males.”