Police will run a pilot program that will overhaul how cops respond to certain minor offenses in North Philadelphia in an attempt to cut down on racially biased stops and frisks.

Starting Aug. 1, officers in the 14th Police District will no longer make official stops for a dozen low-level offenses, including defiant trespass, prostitution, gambling, and open containers of alcoholic beverages. 

Instead, officers will ask people committing the offenses to stop the behavior. If individuals comply, they are free to walk away; if they don’t comply, police can initiate an official stop, triggering requests for identification, warrant checks and potentially a frisk.

The pilot program will run for three months in the police district that includes the Germantown, East Germantown, West Oak Lane and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said the program will ensure police interactions for those petty offenses are momentary, if individuals comply.

“The point of it is: Stop the behavior and we’re done,” Roper said during a news conference outside Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in the Germantown neighborhood.

The pilot program stems from a federal judge’s order in June that is part of the decade-long consent decree between the Philadelphia Police Department and the ACLU of Pennsylvania over a lawsuit challenging the department's history of racially biased and unconstitutional stops and frisks.

Although unconstitutional stops and frisks have dropped during the past 10 years during the consent decree, the police tactic still overwhelmingly targets African Americans. Blacks account for 70% of pedestrian stops and 80% of frisks, according to the ACLU. Black Philadelphians make up 44% of the city’s population.

Nearly half of all police pedestrian stops are for low-level offenses, including many of those covered under the pilot program, according to the ACLU's website.

Councilmember Cindy Bass, whose 9th District includes parts of the 14th Police District, said the program could offer a fresh start for police and “change what’s been happening in our communities for far too long.”

“We want a strong, respectful, dignified relationship with all parties that are set to serve and protect our neighborhoods,” Bass said.

State Rep. Darisha K. Parker, a Democrat whose 198th District is partially within the police district, said the pilot program could allow officers to focus on other crimes rather than minor offenses.

Jamila Harris, 45, said the pilot program would help formerly incarcerated individuals and those on parole, like herself, by limiting police contact and could foster “trusting relations” between officers and the community. In some instances, official police contact could violate the conditions of someone's parole. 

“Considering all the current and increasing tensions between the police and citizens, we need healing,” Harris said. “We also need a police presence that does not threaten the community.”

While there is currently no plan to expand the new program citywide, a federal judge could make that determination when the parties in the lawsuit, Bailey v. City of Philadelphia, meet later this year after the pilot program ends.

In addition to the pilot program, the federal judge also ordered the police department to set up a program to monitor for racial disparities in pedestrian stop-and-frisk actions by individual officers and their commanders, and develop an accountability and discipline system of police officers who engage in racially biased stops and frisks, according to the ACLU’s website.

The judge’s order also calls for the police department to assign so-called “accountability officers” to monitor stops and frisks, and racial disparities in five police districts, as well as provide annual training and random audits of police body-worn camera footage, according to the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Minor offenses covered

Police will handle the following minor offenses differently under the pilot program: 

  • Noise complaints
  • Prostitution
  • Spitting
  • Open containers of alcoholic beverages
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Obstructing the highway or sidewalk
  • Defiant trespass
  • Littering in parks or public places
  • Smoking marijuana in public places
  • Public urination
  • Gambling
  • Panhandling

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