America Has a Stop-and-Frisk Problem. Just Look at Philadelphia; the Police Tactic Stop-and-Frisk Is Still a National Scandal, and Philadelphia Is One of the Biggest Battlefronts in the War to End It

By Saul, Josh | Newsweek, June 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

America Has a Stop-and-Frisk Problem. Just Look at Philadelphia; the Police Tactic Stop-and-Frisk Is Still a National Scandal, and Philadelphia Is One of the Biggest Battlefronts in the War to End It


Saul, Josh, Newsweek


Byline: Josh Saul

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Pennsylvania state legislator Jewell Williams had just picked up his dry cleaning and was driving home through North Philadelphia when he noticed that three police officers had stopped a car with two elderly black men inside. The officers frisked the driver, and when a cop set his cash down on the trunk of the car, the loose paper bills fluttered away in the wind and were scooped up by patrons from the nearby Red Top bar. "So I got out of the car, and I was yelling to the people, 'Yo, leave that man's money alone!'" says Williams, who is black, looking out over hardscrabble York Street as he describes how he got sucked into a landmark stop-and-frisk lawsuit that would change the city and mirror similar fights all over the country.

The cops got angry. They swore at and handcuffed the driver and passenger, a city employee and a retired tailor, and put them both in a patrol car. Williams, standing next to his black Chrysler with legislative tags, pulled out his state representative ID and even pointed to his home, which was on the other side of an overgrown lot. "Get back in your fucking car before I give you a bunch of tickets," one cop told him, according to court papers.

When Williams, a retired Temple University police officer who is now Philadelphia's sheriff, told the cops he wanted to speak to a supervisor on that March 28, 2009, day, one officer ratcheted cuffs tightly around his wrists, and a sergeant who had arrived on the scene pushed him inside a police car. The cops ferried the two handcuffed elderly men a half-dozen blocks in the back of a patrol car as another cop drove their car to the same spot. The men were dropped on the side of the road without charges, with the police returning their car and cash--minus the bills that blew away, court papers state. Williams was held for much longer as his constituents looked on and his daughter pleaded with the police to let him go. "I sat out here like I was on public auction," he tells Newsweek, echoing the experiences of countless black men who have sat on curbs in front of their families. "Then we went to the district."

Williams, a tall man, rode to the 23rd District police station handcuffed and in the back of a patrol car with his size 13 feet propped up on the seat beside him. He was released several hours later without charges. Later that evening, he met with then-Mayor Michael Nutter and his police commissioner. But Williams wasn't pacified. He sued the City of Brotherly Love in 2010, the ex-cop reluctantly becoming a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that accused the city of an illegal stop-and-frisk policy that targeted black and Latino men. The lawsuit and the ensuing 2011 settlement have slowly forced Philadelphia, home of the Liberty Bell and the nation's fourth-largest police department, to change how it stops and searches its residents. But a March 22 report written by the lawyers representing Williams found that police are violating the settlement, and the lawyers threatened to seek sanctions if no progress is made within six months.

That ugly scene outside the Red Top and the changes it sparked reflect a national push to reform stop-and-frisk, which can be either a valuable tool to catch criminals or an ugly wedge that makes minorities hate cops. "Philly is not unique. Philly is part of a larger picture around the country," says Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Criminal Law Reform Project. "The police in city after city are targeting poor communities of color and using their discretionary and fairly awesome authority to stop somebody on the street walking to work, on the subway, on a bike, and questioning them and often frisking them to see if they come up with anything."

Police in New York City stopped almost 700,000 people in 2011, the peak year under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. …

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