Stop and frisk. The term should have been synonymous with reducing crime in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Oakland where it’s been the law for years. Outgoing-NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg asserts that the practice has stopped thousands of crimes in New York in the 11 years since he implemented it there in 2002. In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter was a proponent of stop and frisk when he first ran for mayor in 2007, basing his support for it on its success in New York City.
But even those of us who supported Nutter were always queasy about stop and frisk and how it would be enforced. The past few weeks in Philadelphia have underscored why.
The video first released Tuesday by the New York Daily News and NBC 10 is disturbing to watch and even more disturbing to listen to. Two white police officers, one identified as Philip Nace of the 25th District, stopped two Latino men on Sept. 27 for saying “hi” to someone on the street in North Philadelphia. One of the men covertly recorded the incident on his cell phone. The video has since been viewed nearly a half-million times on YouTube and as of Oct. 15 was on every local Philadelphia TV news website.
In the video, a police cruiser slows and begins to follow the two men. One of the men puts his cell phone video on as he walks, first viewing the sidewalk, then the cruiser. The police roll to a stop next to the men (it’s broad daylight on a sunny morning) and ask them what they are doing and tell them they cannot speak to strangers on the street. “Not in this neighborhood,” one of the officers says. The men, who say they live in Camden, keep asking what they’ve done wrong. The police get out and slam the man not holding the cell phone up against the patrol car.
The other man continues to walk away, but the cell phone is still recording. The officers order him to come back.
From the outset the police officers are angry and abusive, with no provocation. The men are reasonable, answering the officers’ questions, but also asking why they’ve been stopped. Neither uses foul language, but both officers do.
Then there is this exchange:
“Don’t come to f***ing Philadelphia. Stay in Jersey!” one officer yells.
“We don’t want you here anyway, all you do is weaken the f***ing country,” the other adds.
“Yeah? I weaken the country? How do I weaken the country? By working?” one of the two men stopped asks after repeatedly arguing that he was just walking to work.
“No. Freeloading,” the officer tells him.
“Everyone thinks they’re a f***ing lawyer and they don’t know jacks**t,” one of the officers says in response to something said to the officers about the stop.
The video goes on for 16 minutes, all of which is extraordinarily abusive. The men are eventually told they were jaywalking and are taken in for questioning, which means they lost that day’s work and possibly their jobs as well. (They have described their jobs as servers in a local restaurant. Both men, who give their birth dates on the video when asked by police, are in their 20s.)
The second incident is equally disturbing, yet also ironic. On Sept. 10, Herbert Steadman, 50, a married father of four from West Oak Lane, endured a stop and frisk as he walked to a bus stop.
Steadman told Philly.com that the police drove up to him, angling the police car and jumping out, grabbing him by his shirt and pants. They went through his wallet without his permission and demanded to know what he was doing “so far from home.” (Spellman had been with his son at the Academy Cyber Charter School.)
Spellman said the language used with him was abusive, and that he was asked if he was on drugs and then accused of being on drugs. Ultimately he was not charged with any crime.
What makes Spellman’s story ironic is that he is a retired Philadelphia police officer with 20 years on the job. He retired on disability in 2008 after he was injured.
Spellman has filed a complaint with the Philadelphia Police Department. He described his experience as “demeaning” and “humiliating” and said he felt he needed to warn his son to be as wary of police as of actual criminals.
These two incidents have become newsworthy specifically because one complainant is himself a former police officer and the other videotaped a full 16 minutes of verbal abuse and harassment from the police in question. We can see much of the incident and hear the rest.
The Philadelphia Police Department has been both tight-lipped and defensive in response to both instances of stop and frisk gone wrong. In Spellman’s case, Lt. Thomas Fournier of Internal Affairs confirmed the complaint, but declined comment pending an investigation.
In the case of the videotape, in a prepared statement, PPD Lt. John Stanford asserted that “the department and a vast majority of our officers go out and give the city and our citizens 100% each day in providing great service and protection. We will not allow the poor judgement of one individual to speak for this department.”
These two very ugly incidents of obvious abuse raise new questions about what is happening with stop and frisk off camera and when the subject of the search is not a former police officer.
Most Philadelphians have empathy for the police. It’s a brutal job and Philadelphia, alas, leads the nation in officers killed in the line of duty in the past five years. That said, in neighborhoods like mine or those where these two incidents occurred, how often do police take advantage of the stop and frisk policy to vent their anger at what they face daily on men who statistics show are rarely arrested after the stop?
Philadelphia’s demographics tell part of the story. As of the 2010 U.S. Census, 36.9% of Philadelphia’s 1.6 million inner-city residents were white. The city is 43.4% African American, 12.3% Hispanic, 6.3% Asian, with the remainder of the residents mixed race. By sheer numbers one would be more likely to be stopped by police if one was non-white.
Philadelphia’s is the oldest municipal police department in the country and the sixth largest non-federal law enforcement agency, larger than any other city but Los Angeles and New York with 6,446 officers as of January 2013, plus a mounted patrol unit. (An additional 625 officers are being hired between now and January 2014.)
But while Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is African-American and has been in the post since he was hired by Mayor Nutter in 2008, the demographics of the PPD are the obverse of the population of the city. Men are 70 percent of the force, women 30 percent. White officers are 57%, black are 36%, Hispanic 6.5%, other, 1.5%.
With 21 patrol districts, some of them, like the 14th, 39th and 25th, both massive and the most crime-ridden in the city, there are going to be many white cops patrolling primarily black neighborhoods.
Some of the arguments I heard while serving on community panels prior to the enactment of stop and frisk in Philadelphia were that since African-Americans were both the primary victims of crime in the city and also the primary perpetrators, that stop and frisk could not be considered racial profiling, especially since then-City Councilman and mayoral candidate Nutter was himself African-American.
But if you listen to what Nace says at several points on the purloined video, he’s succinct: People in “good” neighborhoods don’t get stopped. Which implies that he believes everyone in more crime-ridden neighborhoods like North Philly, Germantown and West Oak Lane are potential perpetrators rather than potential victims.
The question this raises for the rest of us is: Is that solely Nace’s perspective and that of his partner, or is it the unwritten rule of stop and frisk for the PPD as a whole?
It seems unlikely that the two incidents described here are anomalous with regard to the behavior ascribed to the officers–all white–involved. One has to ask why the PPD has not released the name of the officer riding with Nace on Sept. 27 or why Nace was still riding the streets of his district as recently as Friday.
While Nace is the more abusive of the two, both officers participated in the racial profiling of the two men and both officers used similar language–language that Steadman also described from his encounter. Is this kind of verbal assault considered appropriate and acceptable by the PPD? Because it’s not the language used in other jobs. Are there no rules about the way people are spoken to by police?
While language may seem to be the least of the issues here, the language used just reinforces the us-versus-them mentality concomitant with the stop and frisk policy. Nace and his partner clearly believe the two men are not American and clearly believe that non-whites are “freeloaders” and as they reference at other points, “crooked” and “dirty-a**.” In the view of both these white officers the men are “weakening the country.” Yet they are on their way to work, coming from another city, a good hour’s travel-time by public transit from Camden to North Philly. The stop and frisk policy put their livelihood at risk. And Camden already has a 20% unemployment rate and 52% of the city’s residents live at or below the poverty level.
According to Ezekiel Edwards, head of the national ACLU’s criminal-law reform project (the ACLU has filed several class-action suits related to stop and frisk laws), stop and frisks have declined overall in Philadelphia, but “in 2012, 47 % of the frisks conducted were without reasonable suspicion, 76% of the stops were minorities and 85% of the frisks were of minorities.”
So–significantly over the city’s racial demographic. What the ACLU doesn’t reveal is how many of those stop and frisk incidents were conducted by white officers of non-white suspects.
In 2011, as a result of one of the lawsuits filed by the ACLU over stop and frisk, a court-appointed monitor regulated the police’s stops and searches. But is that enough? It seems not.
No one can argue that in neighborhoods where crime is rampant, like my own on the border between Germantown and North Philly in the 39th District, citizens need as much help from the police as we can get. Just last month a man was shot 12 times and killed not 100 feet from my front door. A week earlier a woman, her baby and two other men were shot in the parrk around the corner.
But if more than half of these stop and frisk encounters aren’t even predicated on reasonable suspicion–like the one on Sept. 27–then isn’t the policy doing more harm than good?
It would seem so.
The anger some police seem to feel in fighting crime is making men like Steadman, a cop himself for 20 years, feel that the police are not only not on his side, but that he and his son are, as African-American men, at risk from the police. The stop and frisk concept might have made sense on paper–disperse gangs of young men of all races hanging out in front of beverage stores or on known drug corners who are harassing local residents and making them fearful. That’s certainly how Nutter and Ramsey presented it to Philadelphians and it’s how Bloomberg promoted it to New Yorkers.
But most of us never imagined stop and frisk would be happening in broad daylight when people were on their way to work. Or that lone men like Steadman would be stopped as if they had been fleeing police, rather than just walking down a city street after leaving a son at a computer class.
Nor did any of us envision the overt racism, xenophobia and abusive language evinced by the officers who stopped Steadman and the Latino men from Camden.
I’ve been the victim of violent crime in Philadelphia as well as a victim of property crimes. So have many of my friends and family. We want the police to have as many tools to fight crime as possible. But–and this is an essential, ineluctable but–it can’t be this. It can’t be racial profiling and being stopped-while-not-white and being harassed and being told you are ruining the country. If this is what police officers are thinking first thing in the morning, what are they thinking late at night when most crimes of the sort stop and frisk was meant to deter are happening?
What happens when all the men who have been stopped unreasonably file lawsuits against our city? What happens when a man who is stopped gets even more scared than the men on the cell phone video and decides to run and gets shot by police and killed? The potential risks seem to be growing by the day. These two incidents occurred in a two-week period last month and were revealed this week. How many more are waiting to be revealed? How many more repugnant videos are there? How many more ex-cops are preparing to file complaints?
Philadelphia tried this policy. It hasn’t worked. All it has done is to make police less tolerant of the citizenry and the citizenry feel threatened by the very people we need to help us when we are in real danger. It’s time to stop stop and frisk. It’s time to stop treating every man in every neighborhood that isn’t Chestnut Hill or Society Hill as potential suspects. It’s time the PPD had a sit-down with its officers and told them we are citizens first and suspects second. It’s time. It’s past time.
this column first appeared in The Independent Voice, Northwest Newspapers Inc.