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Jones: Police memo seems to encourage illegal 'stop-and-frisks'

AN AUG. 30 internal memo signed by the commander of Philadelphia's 1st Police District, Capt. Louis Campione, appears to instruct officers to engage in illegal searches.

AN AUG. 30 internal memo signed by the commander of Philadelphia's 1st Police District, Capt. Louis Campione, appears to instruct officers to engage in illegal searches.

Under the subject heading "Administrative Issues," the memo tells officers in the South Philadelphia district, "Our violent crime is up 100 percent for shootings. We must work to get illegal guns off the street. If they are wearing a belt, it is worth a second look for a gun."

There's only one problem. Searching someone for a gun just because they're wearing a belt is patently unconstitutional. And in a city where the mayor ran for office on the promise to end the practice known as "stop-and-frisk" because it is racially discriminatory and ineffective, this memo indicates that unconstitutional searches continue, sometimes with the blessing of police supervisors.

I showed the memo to two lawyers who deal with civil rights issues, and both were deeply troubled by its contents.

"This memo should be of great concern," attorney Paul Hetznecker told me after reviewing the document. "Mayor Kenney specifically pledged to discontinue the unconstitutional stops, frisks and searches that served as the centerpiece of the policing strategy under the previous administration. This memo clearly encourages the precise unconstitutional conduct that has been part of ongoing federal litigation for the past seven years."

Hetznecker is right. Bailey v. City of Philadelphia, a 2010 federal class-action lawsuit that resulted in the Philadelphia Police Department being placed under federal monitoring, was filed on behalf of eight African American and Latino men who were stopped by Philadelphia police on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

As part of a settlement agreement, the Philadelphia Police Department must provide officers with training and supervision on stop-and-frisk practices and collect data on all stop-and-frisks.

The last report based on that data was released in March. By randomly auditing 2,380 stops, the federal monitor found that 69 percent of stops and 79 percent of frisks involved black residents, though blacks compose only 44 percent of the city's population.

The monitor also found that Latinos are 7 percent more likely to be frisked than their white counterparts.

All of which makes the memo from the 1st District captain all the more troubling for Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. The ACLU was part of the team of lawyers that represented the plaintiffs in the Bailey v. City of Philadelphia lawsuit.

Asked what he thought when he saw the memo, Shuford didn't hesitate.

"We think it encourages illegal frisks," Shuford said. "A belt is not reasonable suspicion that someone is carrying a weapon. Without more careful explanation, a patrol officer would not be likely to read this merely as 'look twice at people wearing belts.' They would instead be likely to go further and stop and frisk someone. We know from our own review of police data that rarely do those frisks result in weapons being found."

I contacted the police department, showed it a copy of the memo and asked for an explanation.

Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman, said the memo referred to a specific gang in South Philadelphia that had bragged about wearing belts to hold their guns.

"The cops that work in that district, those that saw it at roll call, they know who those individuals are," Stanford told me. "No, it's not Mr. Jones who's living on the block. But I know the guy who's involved in this. I know if he's got a belt on today, just look again, and make sure he doesn't have a gun.

Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt also said the memo referred to a specific gang the captain had discussed with officers in the district.

"Very importantly, the memo only instructs officers to 'look,' " she added. "It explicitly does not say to stop or to frisk anyone just because they have a belt."

Stanford acknowledged that not everyone saw it that way. He said that when the confusion was brought to the attention of higher-ups, they clarified the message. When I asked Stanford whether there was another memo that included that clarification, he said he wasn't aware of one.

In an election year when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump calls for the expansion of stop-and-frisk - a policy that has disproportionately led to illegal searches in black and brown communities - we all should be aware.

It's my understanding from various sources that Campione is a good man - a religious man. But given the ongoing distrust created by unfair policies and broken promises, those in command of our police departments must know that clear explanations are required.

If you're talking about a gang, and a specific belt is the hallmark of that group, say so in the memo.

Otherwise, says Hetznecker, "it offers another pretext to conduct an illegal stop-and-frisk based entirely on the fact that the targeted individual is wearing a belt. In my opinion, the instruction to 1st District officers to 'take a second look' at those wearing a belt, without any qualifying language regarding constitutional protections, is more than just encouragement, but a directive to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment. This is very disturbing."

To which I can only say, Amen.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).