Cops Still Unlawfully Searching Tens of Thousands of Americans, Despite “Reforms”: Report


Nick Rummel | Courthouse News Service
PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Four years after settling a class action and agreeing to curb potential constitutional violations, Philadelphia police continued making unconstitutional stops and frisks last year, according to a report released Tuesday by the ACLU.

The 61-page report found that tens of thousands of Philadelphians are still stopped each year by police without reasonable suspicion – often due simply to bulges in pockets – even though the stops are yielding fewer firearms seized.

Such stops and frisks are in violation of the Fourth Amendment and a 2011 court-approved consent decree, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says.

The report found that unfounded frisks were highest last year for people of color: 62 percent of all frisks of Latinos, 57 percent for blacks, and 47 percent for whites. Further, blacks who were frisked were nearly 3 percent less likely to have guns or drugs than whites, the ACLU found.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement that “communities of color” are targeted disproportionately by police and that “they are understandably fed up and demand an immediate stop to being treated like second-class citizens.”

Speaking outside the Philadelphia Federal Courthouse on Tuesday, police commissioner Richard Ross was quoted as saying “the bottom line is the truth will be in the numbers coming forward,” and that police captains would audit stop-and-frisk reports daily instead of monthly.

The ACLU report is the sixth resulting from a civil rights class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by several black and Latino men who alleged Philadelphia police’s stop-and-frisk program violated the U.S. Constitution.

In June 2011, a federal judge approved a settlement between the men and the city, which included mandatory semi-annual reports on the city’s stop-and-frisk program.

As part of the consent decree, Philadelphia also agreed to install an electronic database to track stop-and-frisks, retrain police officers, and install new accountability measures in 2015, once the training was complete.

The first report, issued in February 2012, found that more than half of the stops and frisks in the last half of 2011 were undertaken without reasonable suspicion. A second report in July 2012 found improvement, but not much – 40 percent of stops and frisks were still without reasonable suspicion.

Reports since have found similar percentage rates, including Tuesday’s report, which found that one-third of pedestrian stops and 42 percent of all frisks made in 2015 were without reasonable suspicion. More than 200,000 pedestrian stops were made last year.

Many of the stops were made for conduct that is considered unjustifiable, including for loitering, obstructing a sidewalk, panhandling or hanging out near an abandoned property.

Perhaps more troubling, pedestrian frisks yielded fewer firearms, according to the report. Out of all of 2015’s stops and frisks, only 6 guns were seized, less than a quarter of a percent of all stops made last year.

“Plaintiffs have been more than reasonable in giving the city the means and the time to implement what the police department has insisted are the necessary measures for compliance,” the report states. “[But] unless officers and supervisors are held accountable, the current state of affairs will not change.”

In a statement, the plaintiffs’ attorney David Rudovsky said “Philadelphians have waited too long for a change,” and that if city police do not comply with the consent decree, his clients will file for court sanctions later this year.

The Philadelphia Police Department has had other legal challenges to its practices. In 1996, the city settled a lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which required police training to ensure searches did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s 2015 campaign promised to curb his predecessor’s unlimited stop-and frisk program, which he called a “fishing expedition.”

In a February interview with the Philadelphia Tribune, Ross said the “wholesale practice of stop and frisk” was not used by city police.

Violent crime in Philadelphia has been on the rise sine 2013, when there were 246 homicides. There were 280 homicides in 2015.

There have been roughly 60 murders so far this year, according to stats from the city’s police department.

Published by Courthouse News Service.