Six months after a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks earned international notoriety for the arrest of two black patrons, Philadelphia's Police Advisory Commission has released its finding from a review of the incident. The PAC concluded that an open conversation about race, better training and communication, and a strategy for community policing are necessary.
In the report, the PAC lays out six sets of recommendations for the Police Department. In a response letter attached to the report, Commissioner Richard Ross rejects multiple recommendations. Most important, Ross writes the Police Department "cannot agree with the statement that racism has a profound effect on what drives citizen and police contact."
It is unfortunate that Ross is unable to acknowledge the reality that racism has shaped policing in America — including here in Philadelphia. This is not the first time that Ross had a disappointing comment on the incident.
After the incident, Starbucks closed all of its 8,000 U.S. stores and conducted antibias training for all of its nearly 175,000 employees. The first PAC recommendation is that the Philadelphia Police Department "incorporate consistent, anti-racist practice, incident review and training." According to the PAC, a part of an antiracist practice is accepting the influence of racism on policing.
In his response letter, Ross chose to take a narrow and technical view of the incident — a private entity called the police and asked for service; the job of the police is to respond "regardless of the motivations of the caller." Ross is echoing his original statement after the incident that the officers "did not do anything wrong" — a statement that he later apologized for and added nuance to.
Ross points out that since 2011 a department policy prohibiting racial bias in policing is on the books. In fact, that policy has been on the books since 1868, when Congress adopted the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal protection under the law.
And yet racial disparities in policing persist. Evaluations of stop-and-frisks by the Police Department show that while the department has improved, African Americans account for 69 percent of stops from January to June 2017, in a city in which they are 48 percent of the population.
An analysis conducted by the Inquirer found that in Center City, blacks are stopped and arrested at indoor locations at a much higher rate than whites.
Other recommendations include creating positions overseeing community policing, communication with stakeholders about the role of policing in the city, and training supervisors in problem-solving skills, and improving mentorship for new officers.
The PAC has no leverage on the Police Department and no way to compel it to accept any recommendation or hold it to any recommendation that Ross did not accept. But City Council can. Earlier this year, the mayor signed into law a bill that guarantees the PAC a minimum annual budget of $500,000.
When Commissioner Ross comes in front of City Council to request next year's budget, Council should ensure that a part of that budget goes to the implementation of the recommendation — otherwise the investment in the PAC is nothing more than paying for the production of a fancy report.