Stop-and-frisk cases down, still too many

Attorney Mahari Bailey, lead plaintiff in the stop- and-frisk case Bailey v. Philadelphia. The case documents a number of instances when police officers allegedly stopped, searched and often detained someone without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.– PHOTOGRAPH FROM MAHARI BAILEY.COM

As the New York Police Department comes under scrutiny regarding its stop-and-frisk practices, a similar case in Philadelphia has also brought the harsh spotlight once again on the same practices by the city’s police officers.

A report released this week by the law firm of Kairys Rudovsky Messing and Feinberg along with the Philadelphia ACLU alleges that almost half of all pedestrian stops were conducted without probable cause. Further, the report alleges that the department continues to report low levels of unconstitutional stop-and-frisk and raises concerns as to whether or not the Internal Affairs Department and inspectors are carrying out appropriate oversight.

In a disproportionately high number of stop–and-frisks conducted by Philadelphia police officers, the officers didn’t have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to initiate the action, the report said. Also, as in the case being heard in New York, most of the stop –and-frisks were conducted on African-American and Latino men, many of whom were not involved in criminal or suspicious activity.

“This report tells us that the city has not achieved the goal of ensuring that its stop-and-frisk practices are legal and fair,” said civil rights attorney David Rudovsky. “The Philadelphia Police Department will need to improve its own monitoring and supervision systems to meet that goal, or the court will be asked to impose appropriate sanctions. We’re two years into this process. We understand the police use shorthand, and that’s not the issue. We sampled 1,800 incidents and out of that number only three guns were recovered; there should be more evidence.”

Mark McDonald, spokesman for the Nutter administration, said the report tends to highlight poor documentation of appropriate stop and frisks. Captain Fran Healy, special counsel to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, said in many instances his police officers are doing a good job but are poorly documenting the reasons for making the stops.

“We get criticized when a report like this comes out, but the fact is we provide more documentation regarding stop-and-frisks than any other police department,” Healy said. “The law requires reasonable suspicion when we stop someone and probable cause if they think the person has a weapon. They write the reason for the stop, but often use cop abbreviations so we’ll see the reason for the stop listed as ‘loitering’ and then terminology that doesn’t accurately describe what happened. Here’s the problem; I have a range of officers on the streets, some with just a GED and others with law degrees, and we need to have them on the same page. The stops may be lawful but not properly documented.”

The report is the latest peripheral to the case of Bailey v. Philadelphia, in which a number of African -American men say they were stopped questioned and frisked without cause by Philadelphia police officers. The complainants: Mahari Bailey, Timothy Streaty, Fernando Montero, Preston Fulton, Gregory Blackmon, Jr., John Cornish, Carl Cutler and former State Rep. Jewell Williams accused the Philadelphia police officers of violating their constitutional and civil rights. They claim that the more than 10 defendants named in the complaint implemented and enforced a policy of stop-and-frisk without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Mahari Bailey, the lead plaintiff in the case, was in West Philadelphia in early 2008 with several other Black men when he was approached by some officer who allegedly stopped Bailey without cause.

“Since the case has settled, the police and city government have made some efforts to improve the current and past practices. Unfortunately, those efforts may not be reflected in the numbers, and I hope that the numbers are improved in the coming reports; especially in the disparity. I have faith that the city and police department will remedy the situation in time,” said Bailey.

Allegedly his car was searched and he was detained with no criminal charges being filed against him. Around Sept. 12, 2008 Bailey was stopped again while driving in the vicinity of North 64th Street. The complaint alleges he was pulled over and was asked by the officers if he had any drugs or guns in the car. Bailey told them he was an attorney and that there were no illegal drugs or firearms in his vehicle. He was detained again and eventually released with no criminal charges being filed.

Bailey was stopped again in August 2009 by Philadelphia police officers who allegedly had no reasonable suspicion or probable cause. He identified himself as an attorney and this time refused to consent to being searched. Allegedly, one of the stopping officers raised his fist in a threatening manner and told him “he didn’t give a f*** who he was” and left.

“On each occasion, defendants subjected Mr. Bailey without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, to an unlawful stop, frisk, search or detention based on his race,” the complaint stated. “This unconstitutional conduct is a direct and proximate result of policies, practices and or customs of the defendants.”

In 2011, the city and the ACLU reached a settlement agreement regarding the complaint. As part of the settlement, the Philadelphia Police Department agreed to collect data on all stop-and-frisks. Officers were to be retrained regarding stop-and-frisk procedures and agreed to establish a monitoring system in which the police department, plaintiffs' counsel and an independent court-appointed monitor would review and analyze the data.

The report, which was released on March 19, showed that the overall number of stops had decreased by nearly 15 percent. On the flip side, the report indicated that there was still a very high number of stops-and-frisks – about 45 percent – made without reasonable suspicion. 

African-American and Latino males bore the brunt of those contested incidents – 76 percent of the stops and 85 percent of the frisks. The report notes that Philadelphia Police Department officers continue to stop pedestrians for reasons specifically forbidden in the consent decree, because they are "loitering," or "acting suspiciously," or on the basis of a description too vague and generic to justify a stop. Tens of thousands of Philadelphians continue to be stopped without reasonable suspicion, it said. 

Captain Healy said police need to stop the right people, but to do their jobs without alienating the community they serve. Using terms like “loitering” simply undercuts the good job they’re doing, he said.

“The community needs to know that police officers are stopping people for the right reasons, and if we abide by the law we uphold; that creates credibility and transparency,” Healy said. “If you read between the lines in the Bailey case, you see that in numerous cases, the police officer was verbally abusive. People don’t file a complaint against an officer for fun. It’s a lengthy process, so you know when they do, they were offended by something. We have an aggressive policy to address that. An officer who has a complaint filed against them ends up in their inspector’s office with their commander who tells them that ‘your mouth put you in here because you dropped the f-bomb and I don’t want to see you back in here.’ Believe me, you don’t want to find yourself sitting in the inspector’s office for any reason. But a lot of people grow up using the f-word and think it’s all right when it’s not. The behavior of our officers has to be above reproach and the fact is that if you can’t conduct yourself in an appropriate and professional manner you need to walk…find another job, because this one isn’t for you.”

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