By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Philadelphia officials first looked at the tracking system in Pittsburgh (see sidebar), but “there was stuff in there that wasn’t relevant,” says Deputy Commissioner for Internal Affairs John Norris. The department, he adds, was paralyzed by procurement procedures, and stumbled in getting the $8.9 million in funds allocated — the same hurdles that thwarted officials in L.A. “Now I think we should have just got Pittsburgh’s system off the rack and made adjustments,” Norris concludes.
While waiting for the computer, the civil rights groups have assessed performance on the limited data available, scrutinizing overall patterns of enforcement rather than individual officers. In its first publicly released monitoring report, the ACLU analyzed a week’s pedestrian and car stops in four precincts in October ’97 and stops by the Narcotics Unit during all of August, almost 2,000 stops in all. Despite a written memorandum from the police commissioner a few months earlier warning that “There is no such thing as a ‘routine stop,’” and explaining how reasonable grounds for suspicion were required, a full third of the forms offered no explanation for the stop. Many gave inadequate reasons, such â as “was observed walking back & forth on highway” or simply, “above stopped for invest.” The commissioner’s brief law lesson on the Fourth Amendment clearly needed further reinforcement.
Serious problems remained on racial differences in enforcement as well. Though 54 percent of Philadelphians are white, according to the 1995 census (and, with many suburbanites driving to city jobs, the proportion of white drivers is likely higher) only 29 percent of the drivers stopped were Caucasians. In one precinct that was less than one-fifth African-American, blacks were subject to 64 percent of the stops. The statistical peculiarities were even more pronounced when the audit looked at “unexplained” stops, so it’s unlikely the skews can be explained by more expired tags or broken lights on minority cars.
A second monitoring report is scheduled for release later this summer. In the meantime, anecdotes and impressions form the only basis for judging the state of policing minorities in Philadelphia. A major celebrity with a minor injury was the subject of one widely publicized encounter.
Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier got his boxing start at a North Philly Police Athletic League gym and had always been a law-enforcement booster. In fact, he was returning from a police fund-raising banquet in New Jersey when his Jaguar was stopped for erratic driving one April ’98 night near his home.
A rookie patrolman threw him into a squad car where he sat cuffed for 45 minutes, disregarding his protests of pain from a longstanding “frozen shoulder” injury. Acquitted of DUI, Frazier filed civil charges for emotional and reputation damages and broke down in tears on the stand. The jury, not allowed to hear that the officer had incurred five complaints in his first 14 months, found against Frazier. “I’ll never be comfortable with Philadelphia police again,” the ex-champ says now.
Unlike Frazier, 20-year-old UPS worker Thomas Webb had never had his name in the paper in his life. He got a lot of ink, posthumously, due to a November ’98 struggle with two officers. Off-duty cop Terrance Jones fired a Glock into Webb’s chest after Webb allegedly ran from the area where Jones’ car had been broken into. Webb was unarmed.
A pending civil suit will determine whether this shooting was justifiable, but the city may think twice before it lets jurors hear about Officer Jones’ history. The 10-year veteran has already cost the city $2.2 million for the wounding of Carlos McLeod, a Good Samaritan he shot in the groin as McLeod lay on the ground with a shattered spine. McLeod had come to the assistance of a convenience-store clerk wounded by robbers, and then was mistaken for a robber by police when they arrived on the scene.
Two other civil rights suits had been brought against Jones, both settled in arbitration. As a rookie, Jones had been the subject of seven civilian complaints filed with Internal Affairs in the three-plus years preceding the McLeod shooting. The cases had a variety of dispositions, ranging from exoneration of McLeod to the allegations against him being partially sustained. If the computer system to “red flag” potential problem officers had been in effect earlier, Jones would have looked like Moscow on May Day.
Despite several such incidents, some Philadelphia plaintiffs remain guardedly optimistic. J. Wyatt Mondesire, president of the city’s NAACP, says definite progress has been made from the ’70s “when we had dog attacks, and a kid killed in handcuffs,” but “we’re not there yet.” There are still beatings and “rough-ups,” he says, but they are fewer and less violent.
Not everyone agrees. “Things never change in Philadelphia,” snorts Paul Conway, who heads homicide cases for the city’s public defender. And last week’s savage swarm of Thomas Jones by 12 or 15 officers discredits the notion that “reform” practices have taken root. Nor is the he-brought-it-on-himself rhetoric emanating from the department encouraging. One who won’t excuse the outburst of thuggery is Rochelle Bilal of Black Cops Against Police Brutality, who calls it a “disgrace — undermining our efforts to build rapport in the community.” Yet Bilal concedes there’s some “good news” as well. Change is incremental.