Philadelphia’s problem with policing continues — especially for black communities

By Matt Stroud, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Researcher

In May, the Philadelphia Police Department released two years of data about pedestrian and vehicular police stops. The release wasn’t random. It followed a 2011 settlement agreement in Bailey, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, et al — a landmark lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg on behalf of black and Latino men who had been unfairly targeted by Philadelphia cops. The Bailey settlement agreement required PPD to actively review data on stops and frisks that it had been required to collect years earlier, in a previous settlement agreement in the case of NAACP v. City of Philadelphia.

There’s a long history here.

When the new data was first revealed publicly in May on a city of Philadelphia website, PPD’s research director, Kevin Thomas, told Technically Philly that the release was “courageous,” and that the department would finally be judged based on facts rather than innuendo.

“It’s very easy to take law enforcement data out of context and tell a story that fits your own narrative,” Thomas said.

That’s right. And while it’s difficult to call something courageous when it’s been forced into existence through years of litigation, PPD’s data collection is a good thing — and it’s now being mirrored by PDs in places such as Minneapolis.

But if recent analysis of PPD’s stop data by Philadelphia Magazine is accurate, Philadelphia’s policing problems continue — especially for black communities.

Philly Mag showed its findings with an illustration by Elizabeth Worthington in this month’s issue.

If Philadelphia Magazine’s assessments are accurate, the city’s policing problems continue — especially for black communities.

Admittedly, there are some positive changes with PPD — namely a drop in both fatal and non-fatal shootings by cops. But a number of other problems stand out.

For one, Philly Mag found that police stops were on the rise, that there were nearly 85,000 stops in May 2016 alone, and that men were the target of 76 percent of PPD’s stops.

Beyond that, there remained a significant racial disparity in police shootings — and in apparently every aspect of Philadelphia’s police activity. Philly Mag found that nine out of the 20 people shot dead by police were African American. That sounds bad, but it’s likely worse than that: For some unknown reason, the race of another nine of those people killed by cops went unreported.

Philly Mag also found that African Americans were three times as likely to be pulled over, three times as likely to be frisked during traffic stops, and twice as likely to be frisked during pedestrian stops. The 24th District was the scene of eight percent of the city’s overall police stops. That district contains Kensington, an area largely populated by African Americans. While portions of Kensington are notoriously the sites of open-air drug markets, consider that less than two percent of stops lead to police finding contraband. That casts serious doubt on how justified these intrusions are on people’s lives.

These new racial disparity figures aren’t an anomaly. Last year, when ACLU-PA participated in an analysis of frisks performed by PPD officers, it found that there was 71 percent greater likelihood that a black person would be frisked than a white person.

Concerns about racial disparities in police interactions aren’t just about ensuring fairness on the city’s streets. They’re also about avoiding tragedy. As we’ve seen recently with the deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, and Keith L. Scott in Charlotte, police stops can turn violent and deadly with more frequency than anyone would like. If data show that police officers are targeting black men more frequently than anyone else for stops, then it’s no wonder that major protests seem to gather steam every time another one of these senseless police shootings capture the nation’s attention. And it’s no wonder that a Massachusetts high court this week found that black men may have a very good reason for fleeing the police: they don’t want to get killed.

“Everyone should be concerned about disparities in stops,” said Reggie Shuford, ‎Executive Director of the ‎ACLU of Pennsylvania. “At a minimum, they are an inconvenience, especially since over 95 percent of the time they result in no illegal contraband being found. But they are more than racially biased and ineffective at combatting crime. They can also turn deadly, easily escalating into violence and often resulting in the deaths of civilians and sometimes police officers, as we have seen over the past several days, weeks and months.”

Again, we can’t confirm Philly Mag’s work; no one there consulted us at any point in their analysis, and we can’t see how exactly they delved into the massive data trove being collected and distributed by the Philadelphia Police Department. But the magazine’s findings are troubling. At the very least, they show that PPD has a long way to go before the city’s policing issues are solved.

That’s not just a story that fits a narrative. It’s what the data show us.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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