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Editorial | Profiling in Suburbia

No mere nuisance

The ghost of Frank Rizzo lives. Except now, the late top cop and mayor appears to be walking a suburban beat.

An Inquirer series on suburban police practices that concludes today reads like a throwback to the 1960s, when the Philly cops under Rizzo were known for meting out street justice - especially in black neighborhoods.

The series details how police officers in Coatesville, Darby, Pottstown and other suburbs have racked up some of the highest arrest rates in America for such minor offenses as loitering, disorderly conduct and jaywalking.

African Americans have been arrested on many of these charges much more frequently than whites. Suburban police departments deny racial profiling. But walking while black sure seems like a crime in some Pennsylvania towns.

The broad crackdown on such nuisance crimes stems from the policing theory that enforcing minor laws prevents more serious crimes. The "broken windows" theory is a good one, but only if applied properly. In too many suburbs, it hasn't been.

Some suburban officers seem stuck in the Jim Crow era. They are using any excuse to arrest anyone who looks as if he may have committed a crime, with that assessment based mostly on the person's skin color.

A number of other troubling issues are also raised in the series. For one, police in several suburbs appear to recruit their officers mainly in Iowa. For example, blacks are 21 percent of Upper Darby's population, but the police force has just one black cop. Such a lack of diversity heightens racial tension and fosters a disconnect between police and residents in minority communities.

Also, many of the nuisance laws used in making arrests are vague and may be unconstitutional. Yesterday's story in the series noted that thousands of people arrested for minor offenses had been strip searched by police in Chester, Darby, Erie and other suburban outposts.

A Johns Hopkins University biophysicist was among a group arrested in Harrisburg for holding an outdoor party that lacked a permit. She was subjected to a strip search and body-cavity inspection that included the removal of her tampon. The charges were dropped, but she'll never forget the humiliation.

Message to suburban jaywalkers: One wrong step and you could be doing time at Pennsylvania's version of Abu Ghraib. Suburban police should take a lesson from Philadelphia's force, which also was aggressive about making strip searches until new guidelines went into effect in October.

The overzealousness of suburban police again raises questions about Philadelphia Mayor-elect Michael Nutter's plan for a "stop-and-frisk" policing program to reduce gun violence in some neighborhoods. Such measures cannot be a license to arbitrarily violate the civil rights of innocent people.