Why Philly can't breathe, either

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

No amount of officer training can fix a society that grooms so many for prison.


Police officers talk to a man near a beer store at 60th and Haverford streets in July. In this West Philly police district, the number of citations for minor offenses, such as loitering and drinking in public, nearly tripled between 2009 and 2013.
Hillary Petrozziello

Protesters in Philly following Ferguson grand jury decision
Charles Mosteller

For Mayor Michael Nutter, who appeared last weekend on Meet the Press, solving the explosive issue of police-community relations appears to be a simple matter of better officer training.

"The issues of training and experience and what’s in the officer’s mind, and what about perceptions and any amount of bias that any of us bring to our respective jobs,” Nutter said. “What else is going on with the officers? What are they thinking about? What are some of their fears? What are community fears?”

If Mayor Nutter were a psychologist, his vagueries about what police officers are thinking when they stop someone for selling loose cigarettes might make a certain amount of professional sense. But, as mayor of America’s fifth largest city, one with a long history of police misconduct and a large portion of its population shunted into the underground economy, he should know better. For hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia residents, the criminal-justice system is a more significant public institution than the office of mayor and a more visible face of government than nattily dressed City Council members doing the people’s business in City Hall. Prison beds are waiting for these residents when nearly every other public institution, including its cash-starved public schools, have been set up to fail them.

The Philadelphia Police made 72,763 arrests in 2013, the front door to a state prison system that now houses more than 54,000 men and women. The city’s own prisons currently incarcerate roughly 8,000 more.

This criminalized population — in prison, under suspicion, or jobless with a criminal record — constitutes a city within the city because of a series of directives, handed down by politicians, that police are told to enforce. No amount of individual officer-sensitivity training can fix a society that grooms a large segment of the population for prison.

Indeed, even national Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury seems to understand this somewhat better than Mayor Nutter.

“It’s not just law enforcement’s problem,” he said on Sunday. “The common denominator is poverty. In every country in the world where there’s an economic problem in a neighborhood, you have a higher crime [rate]. And then, people like the mayor who have to, send us in to deal with the problems.”

Harrisburg and Washington have no doubt created policies that have segregated Black schools and neighborhoods, fueled economic inequality and made policing, rather than prevention, the favored response to crime. They have criminalized drugs and prostitution, implemented lengthy mandatory-minimum laws, and made it impossible for thousands of people to ever leave prison because the life sentences in Pennsylvania and federal courts come without parole.

And then there’s the brute and arbitrary dragnet imposed by the drug war, including state laws like the drug-free school zone provision, a mandatory minimum that harshly penalizes drug crimes committed within 1,000 feet of school property. As the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission noted, in calling for the law’s repeal, that covers 30 percent of Philadelphia. (This and other mandatory minimums have recently been found to be unconstitutional by the state Superior Court. The question is currently pending before the state Supreme Court.)

But local officials are responsible for much, including Philadelphia’s own prisons, which are facing claims of abuse by guards and currently are the subject of a federal lawsuit alleging severe overcrowding. The mayor has rejected calls for independent oversight.

Nutter, alongside Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, also presides over the Philadelphia Police Department’s widespread stop-and-frisk program, unlike in New York City, where the practice has been sharply curtailed. The practice continues here despite the 2011 settlement the city reached with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and civil rights lawyers, which placed the program under federal court oversight.

A plaintiffs’ report from March 2013 found that pedestrian stops had fallen only modestly, from 253,000 in 2009 to 215,000 in 2012, and that nearly 50 percent of all stops were still made without reasonable suspicion. A new report is due out early next year, and civil rights lawyers may soon ask the court to intervene if unjustified stops don’t fall dramatically.

Police in some neighborhoods also practice what is known as broken-windows policing, the strict enforcement of small-scale quality-of-life issues like drinking in public or selling loose cigarettes. As we’ve seen from recent events on Staten Island, where Eric Garner died after Officer Daniel Pantaleo approached him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes and then placed him in a chokehold — things can go horribly wrong when poor people’s daily lives become a crime.

In Philadelphia, the number of such summary offenses issued rose from 13,323 in 2009 to 23,458 last year, an increase driven by SEPTA police and particularly aggressive enforcement in four police districts centered in West Philadelphia, Center City and Kensington. Police contend that small-bore policing puts a damper on more serious crime. But many experts, including criminologist John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, say that broken windows harms police-community relations and distracts law enforcement from violent crime.

The men I observed being stopped and cited along West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street commercial corridor this past summer certainly didn’t see much value in the program.

“A lot of people are out of work, so they’re just trying to make ends meet. It’s not like they’re trying to sell any hard drugs,” said Curtis, a soft-spoken 57-year-old man wearing work boots and a flat cap, just minutes before he was cited for selling loosies. “I don’t think it’s really hurting anybody.”

Philadelphia police sources I contacted didn’t disagree. “You shouldn’t be arresting people for nonsense,” says one, who sympathized with Officer Pantaleo and blamed those who order broken-windows policing.

Another cop, who was more skeptical of Pantaleo, called broken windows “bullshit.”

One problem with quality-of-life policing is that law enforcement, in trying to solve very small problems, can create much larger ones. In 2010, Askia Sabur was standing on a West Philadelphia sidewalk when he was approached by police who allegedly told him and his cousin to “get the fuck off my corner.” When they refused to leave, Officer Jimmy Leocal severely beat Sabur, an assault that was captured on video and went viral. Even so, District Attorney Seth Williams’ Office prosecuted Sabur, charging him with assaulting Leocal. Sabur was acquitted by a jury, and later won a civil settlement of $850,000.

“The issues in the Black community are very serious, and a lot of people really don’t understand the relationship we have with police officers. A lot of families have been destroyed because of what the cops [have] been doing,” Sabur told City Paper recently. Like Nutter, Sabur understands that police “have to wake up every day thinking about, ‘Am I going to come home that night?’ … Of course they’re dealing with some kind of stress. But that doesn’t make it right to lash out on the people they’re supposed to be protecting.”

Philadelphia politicians speaking about policing in Ferguson and on Staten Island can only be taken seriously if they take steps to reform the criminal-justice system that they administer.

A group of police officers witnessed Sabur’s beating. None would testify against a colleague.

The police’s no-snitching ethos is a deeply ingrained cultural code. Police describe a defensive camaraderie among those carrying out a dangerous and complex job, one they believe civilians don’t understand. Whatever its rationale, it is another reason that Nutter’s call for sensitivity training misses the mark. As former NYPD Capt. and Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams recently argued in the New York Times, “The training taught in police academies across the country is not being applied in communities of color. After six months in the police academy, that instruction is effectively wiped out by six days of being taught by veteran cops on the streets.”

Police brutality and misconduct mostly go unpunished, including for officers with repeated, credible complaints of using severe excessive force. Structural fixes, demanded in the heat of periodic crises, are hotly opposed by the politically powerful Fraternal Order of Police and rarely implemented.

In 1995, five officers were convicted in what is known as the “39th District scandal” for planting drug evidence, lying under oath and assaulting and robbing civilians. In response, the city created a Police Integrity and Accountability Office to examine police misconduct.

Findings from its December 2003 report were disturbing. Nearly half of all officers who “clearly warranted formal discipline” after having allegations sustained by Internal Affairs between January 2000 and May 2002 “received none.” When sanctions were imposed, they were often “astonishingly lenient.” The office’s director, Ellen Green-Ceisler, wrote that an “incestuous” relationship between officers and higher-ups made effective discipline impossible, and called for an independent disciplinary body.

In response, then Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson called her findings “false” and “disgraceful,” and Mayor John Street accused her of harboring “political” motivations. The office became defunct after Green-Ceisler left in 2005. (She is now a Court of Common Pleas judge).

Nothing much has changed since. The city’s Police Advisory Commission (PAC), operational since 1994, remains underfunded and understaffed.

“We still need to have some better ability to analyze the patterns, where they’re occurring, and which officers are involved in it, and things of that nature — and we’re struggling to do that with our meager resources,” says Kelvyn Anderson, the PAC executive director and a former journalist.

The PAC employs two investigators to probe individual complaints and systemic problems in a police force of more than 6,600. That is far smaller than New York’s office, which employs 164, according the PAC’s recently released annual report. Legislation introduced by Councilman Curtis Jones would increase funding and make the PAC a permanent fixture of Philadelphia life. The commission currently exists only by virtue of an executive order that a future mayor could easily overturn.

This modest proposal to boost oversight has been met by resistance from the FOP, as expected, and, more surprisingly, from Mayor Nutter, a onetime critic of excessive force when he was on City Council. It’s unclear if recent events have changed his mind.

“We will offer testimony on the bill if and when it comes up for hearing in City Council,” emailed spokesperson Mark McDonald.

In 2013, I reported on Officer Eric Burke, whose thick file of civilian complaints and lawsuits includes two separate occasions when he was accused of stomping on civilians’ heads. Multiple civilian witnesses corroborated one of those incidents, in Kensington in 2010.

“He immediately slammed me to the ground, put his boot against my head and said, ‘You tell me what you’re doing here or I’m going to kick your fucking head in,’” said the victim, a psychologist from the suburbs who was accused of being in the neighborhood to purchase drugs. “And then … he began stomping my head with his boot.”

Internal Affairs found that Officer Burke had committed the assault. But the Police Board of Inquiry, the panel which metes out discipline to officers, issued him a mere reprimand.

“The whole supervisory function, it’s not working,” John Rightmyer, a lawyer who represented another of Burke’s alleged victims, told City Paper. “I don’t think anyone goes into the academy wanting to beat the crap out of people … [but] they start to learn that you can do certain things and it doesn’t matter. Nothing really bad is going to happen to you.”

Rightmyer complained that “the FOP kind of runs the show.” 

Between 2009 and 2013, there were 3,773 Internal Affairs complaints filed against officers, according to the Police Advisory Commission. Physical abuse has been the top complaint. But Internal Affairs sustained only 14 percent of all complaints.

On the rare occasion when tough discipline is imposed, it is often overturned by arbitrators in a system that critics, including Police Commissioner Ramsey, say favors members of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5. PAC records show that of the 26 dismissal appeals ruled on by arbitrators between 2008 and 2013, 19 resulted in an officer being reinstated.

“It’s very hard to maintain discipline in a police department, especially when at every turn you have cases that wind up getting overturned, people brought back, and in many cases for some very, very serious allegations,” Ramsey told NBC 10 last year.

Anderson credits Ramsey with increasing the staffing of Internal Affairs, which  should allow for quicker and more thorough investigations, and other reforms. [see “Civil Rights Advocates Debate Ramsey.”] But strict discipline is elusive.

The FOP defends the arbitration process as an essential protection of due process for officers. But some decisions are unfathomable. Take one 2007 case, when Ramsey fired Officer Michael Paige after a man accused Paige of forcing him to perform oral sex in his squad car. Paige was found not guilty at trial and, backed by the FOP, won reinstatement from an arbitrator who, according to the PAC, ruled that the sex was consensual.

“Have consensual sex at home, don’t have consensual sex in my car!” Ramsey fumed to the Daily News after the officer’s 2009 reinstatement.

A more polite, more honest and less abusive police force would still not solve the larger problem facing low-income Black people: Mass incarceration.

Many hoped that Seth Williams, elected the city’s first Black district attorney in 2009, would inaugurate a progressive “smart on crime” era of law enforcement. He would, it was believed, supplant the narrow perspective of long-serving predecessor Lynne Abraham, a law-and-order DA who attacked judges who had the gall to doubt police testimony. But disillusionment with Williams has set in, in part because he has aggressively fought the Pennsylvania Innocence Project’s efforts to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.

And he has aggressively prosecuted the drug war, backing a narcotics officer who admitted to lying under oath, unsuccessfully opposing city legislation to decriminalize marijuana and publicly defending a massive civil-asset-forfeiture program that allows law enforcement to seize property, including the homes of people allegedly connected to a crime, even if there is no conviction. The program, detailed by reporter Isaiah Thompson in City Paper in a 2012 investigation, is now the subject of a federal lawsuit and has become a national emblem of the war-on-drug’s failure.

For good police, excessive enforcement makes their job harder. One officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, put it bluntly: “I fucking hate the drug war.”

It is not a matter of individual cops being “a bunch of white racists,” he argues, but rather that mandatory minimum sentences and other such “policies are racist.” Combined with poverty and underfunded schools, the drug war turns “our jails, our prisons [into] just an arrest factory for young Black men.”

And there is no political will to address the problem. “Crime cannot be solved with a new policing policy. ... The increased presence of police in these poor neighborhoods doesn’t fix the problems of these poor neighborhoods. It just makes them worse.”

As for bad police, the drug war provides cover for the worst misdeeds. In July, federal prosecutors indicted six Philadelphia narcotics officers accused of running a criminal enterprise that reached an almost Hollywood level of gangsterism, setting up, robbing and brutally beating suspected drug dealers — even dangling one from an 18th-floor balcony during a shakedown.

The officers, in the clutches of federal law enforcement, await trial, and police brass have finally won the authority to rotate officers in and out of the narcotics unit, a reform that many believe could make them less likely to engage in corruption and misconduct.

These victories for police accountability came on the heels of a major disappointment: Federal prosecutors’ decision (never satisfactorily explained) not to indict another group of narcotics officers accused of looting bodegas and fabricating search warrants in a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Daily News investigation. (One of those officers was also accused of sexually assaulting three women.)

But the drug war’s most basic problems run deeper than a few bad apples hatching outlandish criminal conspiracies, as University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois learned in 2008 while researching the local drug economy. When police conducted a raid on a corner, Bourgois says that police clubbed him to the ground, kicked him in the ribs and charged him with possessing two bags of heroin. The police later apologized, and noted that Bourgois had been dressed like a poor person.

Police never explained the source of the bags of heroin that they had initially accused Bourgois of having. Had Bourgois been an actual poor person, police would have likely been prepared to testify to the mystery heroin’s provenance before a credulous judge. In Philadelphia, this is too often how justice is served and prison beds are filled.

Clarification and correction: Many mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania have in recent months been ruled unconstitutional by the state Superior Court because they are contrary to a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that jurors, and not judges, must determine most facts that give rise to a mandatory sentence. The state Supreme Court is currently reviewing the question. And due to an editing error, it was stated that the Police Advisory Commission has been operational since 1993. In fact, it was created in 1993 and has been operational since 1994.

More from the criminal justice issue:

Civil rights advocates debate Ramsey

Essay: 'I've dealt with more experiences of police negligence and abuse than I can count'

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