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Philadelphia Story 

Like L.A., the City of Brotherly Love had to confront cowboy cops

Wednesday, Jul 19 2000
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Page 3 of 5

Has the court agreement brought change to the Philly P.D.? The most telling evidence is that a key plank — a computerized tracking system of officer performance — is just going out for bids, almost four years behind schedule. As we have seen here — where such a system was mandated by voters in 1991 and federal funds were set aside for its development in 1998, with no action as of yet — something about tabulating police misbehavior seems more complex than say, mapping the human genome.

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.

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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.

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