Why “stop and frisk” should not be used for petty crimes

by Mary Catherine Roper

If you are regularly stopped by the Philadelphia police, you are probably a Black man. If you are not regularly stopped by police, you should watch this video of a stop by Philadelphia police. Go on, watch it. I’ll wait.

In the video, two Philly police officers pull their car over to stop two men who are walking down the street, apparently after they said hello to a third man on the street.

“You don’t say ‘Hi’ to strangers,” says one officer. The men are held against a police car, searched, threatened and repeatedly insulted by the officers for 16 long minutes. When the police let them go, one of the officers says, “You were jaywalking.”

Thousands of times a year, Philadelphians — mostly Black men — are stopped on the street and subjected to detention and questioning, often forced to stand with their hands on a police car, or sit on a curb, so the police can “investigate” them for spitting or jaywalking or any one of a list of petty “crimes” like carrying open liquor containers, obstructing sidewalks, panhandling, littering, riding bicycles on the sidewalk, “trespass” in parks or other areas after hours, and smoking marijuana outside.

Nearly half of the stops made by Philadelphia police are for such petty “crimes.”

People who are not regularly stopped by the police may think that a “stop and frisk” is a minor inconvenience. But the reality is not minor. The average stop, according to police records, lasts 13 minutes — long enough to make you late to wherever you were going. If the person resists, or argues with the police — and sometimes even when they don’t — the situation can often escalate into violence. All of this occurs on public streets, in full humiliating view of the public, who may wonder what that person did to attract the attention of the police.

Civil rights lawyers sued the city a decade ago, claiming that Philadelphia police were stopping people without a legal reason and that they were targeting Black people for stops more than white people. The city signed a settlement promising to change, and over the last decade, the Philadelphia police have reduced the number of people they stop and have taught (most of) their police officers what is and is not a legal reason for a stop.

But the racial disparities in who gets stopped have not changed. Even with fewer stops, even with better police training on the legal requirements for a stop, Black people — especially Black men — are stopped in much higher numbers than whites.

This year, for the first time, the federal judge who oversees the Bailey lawsuit has ordered the city to take steps designed to reduce racial disparities, and one of those steps is to end the practice of stopping people for jaywalking and other petty offenses. What does that have to do with racial disparities? Well, it turns out that these petty stops are even more racially targeted than stops made when police suspect more serious crimes.

So, starting in August, when police in the 14th District — Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill — see someone spitting, jaywalking, making excess noise, or committing a handful of other petty crimes, those police officers will just ask the person to stop what they are doing or leave the area. If the person complies or leaves, that’s the end of the incident — no frisk, no taking their ID, no escalation and no arrest. Only if a person refuses to comply will police escalate the encounter into a stop and potentially an arrest.

After three months, the judge will decide if this program should be expanded to other parts of the city.

For those who live in the pilot district and are concerned about this change in enforcement, police will still be interrupting these petty crimes but without the immediate threat of arrest to the person committing that offense.

The hope is that by reducing the number of people who enter the criminal legal system, over time, this will make our neighborhoods and communities safer.

Mary Catherine Roper is the deputy legal director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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