PHILADELPHIA — Today, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and civil rights attorneys from the firm Kairys Rudovsky Messing Feinberg and Lin filed a motion in federal court asking that the city of Philadelphia be ordered to halt investigative stops for most minor offenses and implement other reforms to address racial disparities in Philadelphia police stop-and-frisk practices. 

Since 2011, the attorneys have been reviewing and reporting on data on the use of stop and frisk by city police as part of a settlement of a 2010 federal lawsuit, Bailey v. Philadelphia. While this decade of data shows that the overall number of pedestrian stops by Philadelphia police has dropped in recent years, Black and brown residents are still disproportionately targeted by police stops, and the drop in pedestrian stops has been coupled with a significant rise in motor vehicle stops. 

After the plaintiffs’ Tenth Report, in April 2020, again showed that Black Philadelphians are stopped and frisked disproportionately, the city filed a report agreeing with plaintiffs’ core statistical analysis. The city then promised to implement reforms to address the racial disparities, while conducting a detailed study of stops in areas with the highest disparities. 

In the motion filed today, the plaintiffs contend that the city’s proposed reforms do not go far enough and, in particular, that stops for so-called “quality of life” offenses are both a waste of police resources and a large source of racial disparities. 

“While we are pleased to see a marked drop in pedestrian stops and frisks, the latest information suggests that there are still too many stops and too much policing of Black and brown communities,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The city’s own study makes the case that we have too much policing. There is no excuse, after all of these years, for the continued racial disparities in stops and frisks.” 

To be clear, the motion does not mean that quality of life offenses will be ignored.  Rather, the reform measure would require an officer first to direct the individual to cease the offending conduct, and only if that person refuses will the police be allowed to make a forcible stop.   This would result in far fewer unnecessary police interventions that are a major cause for community distrust of the police and at the same time will result in a good resolution of the incident.

The city’s own study showed that in the highest crime areas, close to half of all stops were based not on evidence of serious crime, but on “quality of life” offenses, like carrying open liquor containers, obstructing sidewalks, public urination, minor disturbances, panhandling, littering, spitting, gambling, “trespass” in parks or other areas after hours, and suspected smoking of marijuana. Further, the city’s study showed higher rates of racial disparities for these offenses than for more serious crimes.

An additional factor in demanding additional reforms is the recent leak of a police memo instructing officers that “motor vehicle codes give officers probable cause for a stop which avoids the issues we have with the Bailey Agreement.” Both the leaked memo and the city’s analysis strongly suggest that the majority of stops have no relation to fighting violent crime, as the city has argued. 

“The leaked February police memo instructing officers that motor vehicle stops are a way to avoid the mandates of the Bailey case suggests that some Philadelphia police are trying to do an end-run around a federal court order by shifting improper stops from the sidewalk to the street,” Shuford said. “Sadly, it also comes as no surprise that motor vehicle stops by Philadelphia police target Black and brown Philadelphians just as they did with pedestrian stop and frisk. The city must do better to meet its obligations under Bailey.”

The motion filed today also asks the court to order the city to take additional measures to discipline officers who violate the Bailey agreement and incorporates additional reforms to which the city has agreed.   

A copy of today’s filing and all court documents regarding the Bailey case are available here