Nearly a year after Lower Merion police detained a couple of black men who were shoveling snow for residents, sparking an intense and ongoing debate about racial profiling, the township is taking steps to change the policy that led to those stops.
Lower Merion's solicitation ordinance requires that adults obtain a permit before going door to door offering such services as painting, construction, or yard work. The proposal presented last week would remove snow shovelers from that list and possibly raise the age exemption from 16 to 22.
Commissioners spent more than 30 minutes debating the draft and proposing amendments last week: Should the cutoff be 9 p.m. or sunset? Should gutter cleaners be exempt as well? Should ex-convicts be able to obtain permits? They then scheduled a hearing for public comment and a vote for Jan. 20.
The amount of time and energy going into an ordinance that generated only two police stops and zero citations for snow shoveling in all of 2013 and 2014 is emblematic of the larger issue of race relations in the wealthy, largely white Main Line township.
Since last winter, when the photo of two black men seated in the snow sparked outrage on Facebook, police have implemented more foot and bike patrols, scheduled "coffee with a cop" events, held forums, and released detailed statistics.
"To the credit of the police and the commissioners, we really are working on it," said Township Commissioner Brian A. Gordon, who chairs the police commission. "We have been since February, but we're not there yet."
In October, tensions flared again when a black man at a bus stop was mistaken for a bank robbery suspect. Dozens of black residents spoke at a police commission meeting, with one man saying they felt like "second-class citizens."
In that case and in the snow-shoveling stops, internal reviews found that officers had followed the law and department protocol.
At a forum in April, the police department reported that while black people represent about 6 percent of the township, they made up 30 percent of the arrests in 2013 and 2014. It also noted that 80 percent of those arrested for serious crimes were not residents of Lower Merion.
A disparity was also found in the number of people cited under the overall solicitation ordinance. Among those stopped in 2013 and 2014 and found not to have a permit, whites were 1.76 times more likely than blacks to be released without a citation, department data show.
Diana Robertson, president of the Main Line branch of the NAACP, said statistics are key, "because then people can't say, 'It's one case. It's not a big deal.' "
"Even if what you say are stated policies or standards or actions, the question still arises: Is that the standard used for everyone given the same circumstance?" she asked.