Is broken windows Philly's new stop-and-frisk?
Number of police citations for minor offenses in Philly rises sharply, sparking debate.
Neighborhood regulars hanging out near 52nd and Market streets did not hesitate to complain as police officers on patrol walked the blocks, handing out fines for drinking in public and selling “loosies,” or single cigarettes.
“I don’t think it’s really hurting anybody,” says Curtis, 57, standing in the heart of black West Philadelphia’s bustling retail corridor. “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.”
Curtis says he remembers a time years ago when people “used to sit outside and drink … and there wouldn’t be no problem.”
Things have changed: A City Paper review of Philadelphia Police data shows the number of so-called “summary citations” for minor offenses like loitering, drinking in public and selling loosies grew from 13,323 in 2009 to 23,458 last year — an increase of 76 percent. Much can be attributed to SEPTA Police, who have boosted the number of citations issued from one in 2011 to 8,725 last year.
The number of citations issued by Philadelphia Police rose more modestly, from 13,128 in 2009 to 14,662 in 2013. But a look at individual districts paints a more complicated picture. Citations plummeted in the Far Northeast's 8th District, for example, dropping from 300 in 2009 to 133 last year. But other districts showed major increases over the same period, including the 19th, which covers 52nd and Market and extends up into Overbrook and Wynnefield. There, citations rose from 850 a year to 2,443.
In fact, just four of the city’s 22 police districts accounted for nearly half of all the citations issued last year: the 19th, the 6th (centered in eastern Center City and Old City), the 16th (including parts of University City, Powelton, Mantua, Mill Creek and much of Fairmount Park West) and the 24th (covering much of Kensington, Juniata Park and Port Richmond).
The 19th District’s strict enforcement of quality-of-life crimes was apparent earlier this month as a reporter watched a group of officers on foot patrol cite a man on 52nd Street for having an open container of beer. They appeared to stop another man holding a beer, only to discover that he had not yet opened it.
“A lot of people drink here,” Officer Richard Gallo told the man. “That’s why we ask. Nothing personal.”
Gallo said his captain’s mantra is that “the small things lead to the big things” and that someone stopped for drinking or urinating in public might have drugs or an open warrant. But “no, I’ve never found guns,” he says.
“They harassing us about beer,” complained the man cited for drinking, who declined to give his name. “Go get the motherfuckers that’s killing motherfuckers.”
The police began to walk southward on 52nd — where they cited Curtis for selling single cigarettes, just minutes after he had finished speaking with a reporter. Walking away with a green citation, Curtis took a slow drag and deadpanned: “That’s a prime example.”
A local businessman asked a reporter to step into his store, where he fumed that police were harassing Curtis and other small-time offenders and ignoring drug dealers.
“They know [who they are], but don’t want to mess with them,” said the merchant, who declined to give his name. “Instead they mess with people [who] try to make $5, $10 a day.”
A man at the corner said that police appear to be targeting low-income areas and have “been very disrespectful, very aggressive.”
“It seems like they write citations, things of that order, because the city’s hurting for money,” he said, and they are doing so by enforcing “things that are overlooked” in other parts of the city.
The man, who declined to give his name, said that the aggressive enforcement began about two years ago.
Police Capt. Joseph Bologna took over the 19th District in June 2012 and the annual number of citations have more than doubled under his watch.
“We’ve seen a direct relation to our enforcing quality of life, we’ve seen a decrease in other types of crimes, specifically violent crime,” Bologna says. “I’m a big proponent of quality of life and handling little, smaller issues so they don’t become larger issues.”
Murders in the 19th, for example, fell from 23 to 18 between 2012 and 2013, a 22 percent decrease. But murders were down sharply citywide — by 25 percent. Shootings in the 19th decreased by 17 percent, slightly above the city’s 12 percent total.
Bologna expounds the “broken windows” theory of policing, which posits that enforcing minor crimes creates a sense of order that discourages others from committing more serious offenses.
“When a neighborhood looks less inviting to crime, when folks take care of their neighborhood, and when the police are enforcing what the community wants, and what they expect, and what they deserve as citizens, you see larger issues decrease,” says Bologna.
Two social scientists coined the term “broken windows” in a 1982 article in The Atlantic, and it became widely known in the 1990s when New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton employed it to crack down on graffiti and “squeegee men” approaching motorists. Violent crime dropped dramatically in the following years for reasons that remain hotly disputed.
In Philadelphia, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III has embraced the theory, cracking down on turnstile-jumpers, and has been credited for cleaning up the area around the Somerset Market-Frankford Line station, long a center for the city’s booming heroin trade.
“It’s our opinion that people who are not paying to get on the system are getting on the system to do other things that are not positive,” he told City Paper in April.
The stops that accompany citations also present officers with an opportunity to frisk the person.
“We stop individuals to investigate in reference to quality-of-life arrests,” Bologna says, “and it turned out to be something different — like they have drugs on them, they have guns on them, they’re wanted. It’s just the lawlessness, they think they can get away with it.”
As such, the crackdown on quality-of-life offenses could serve as a pretext to legitimate stop-and-frisks that might otherwise fail to pass legal muster under a 2011 consent decree with civil rights lawyers monitored by a federal court. The attorneys say that police continue to stop too many without reasonable suspicion — resulting in a large number of the city’s marijuana-possession arrests.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said that there has been no citywide directive to boost citations, telling City Paper in April that select captains may have taken it upon themselves to react to “community concerns.” Lt. Kevin Long, an administrator in Ramsey’s office, pointed to a rule change implemented in 2009 in which police were no longer required to arrest those being cited. Now, police can simply issue a citation that requires an offender to appear in Municipal Court, and possibly pay a fine.
This has freed both police and offenders from time-consuming arrests, but has also made it easier for an individual captain to orchestrate a crackdown.
On 52nd Street, police stopped and frisked Saba Clayten, 24, apparently for riding his bike on the sidewalk.
“I don’t think it’s probable cause to stop someone,” said Clayten. “It’s a little like harassment.”
Bologna emphasizes that his officers have discretion, but that “it’s the law. … The sidewalk is for walking. We have bike lanes. City of Philadelphia is very into going green.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose West Philadelphia district encompasses 52nd and Market, said that she had not heard about the enforcement campaign, but said, “Police have a job to do.” She said, however, that police should warn residents before cracking down. Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who represents much of the 19th Police District, praised Bologna, whom he said was one of the first captains to show a serious commitment to the neighborhoods.
“It’s a pendulum and it’s a hard one to maintain a balance on,” says Jones. But it is “important to let people know that selling loosies and drinking forties in front of these stores is not an acceptable form of socialization in the 4th Councilmanic District.”
Civil rights advocates and many criminologists, however, agree with the critical appraisal of broken-windows offered by the alleged scofflaw cyclist, loosie-vendor and sidewalk-imbiber.
“If the point is to prevent future violence, shouldn’t we be concentrating on people with past violence rather than a guy riding his bike down the sidewalk?” asks criminologist John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.
In New York, NYPD Commissioner Bratton is once again at the helm and re-emphasizing the importance of clamping down on small-time offenses.
But Roman says that cities like Washington, D.C., also experienced major crime downturns without cracking down on minor offenses. In D.C., once known as the nation’s “murder capital,” the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) emphasized building community relationships to tackle serious crimes, says Roman. That approach “put the police on the side of the resident, not in opposition to the resident.
“Residents will call MPD and say I know who did that shooting and I’m going to tell you,” says Roman. “And I’m willing to bet that in the 19th District, where they’re [stopping people] for drinking a beer outside, they’re not getting those calls.”
Roman also says that there are a number of reasons that crime dropped so precipitously in New York, including the hiring of thousands of police officers, tough gun laws, new technology and rapid gentrification.
Today, Bratton continues to defend the broken-windows policy in the face of widespread criticism following the recent death of Eric Garner, 43. In a chilling video, police appeared to place Garner in a choke hold while attempting to arrest him for selling cigarettes on a Staten Island street.
New York-based Police Reform Organizing Project director Robert Gangi has called NYPD’s enforcement “the new stop-and-frisk.”
Overbrook community activist Gregory Allen, however, says that Bologna’s approach differs from the NYPD’s because it's not as “heavy-handed,” and he credits the captain for helping to clean up the community.
“He and I agree firmly about broken windows,” he says. “I even went to The Atlantic and pulled him up the original article.”
Philadelphia Municipal Court processes summary citations issued by the police and, last week, room 404 was so packed with small-time offenders that a line had formed in the hallway outside. One young man from Kensington lamented that it was the second time he and a friend had to go to court for sitting on the steps of an abandoned house.
Inside, a judge tried to persuade each offender not to take their case to trial, offering a $200 fine and a six-hour class in exchange for a clean criminal record. Most take the class: The judge warns that pleading “not guilty” carries the risk of a higher fine and untold court costs. Those who receive summary offenses that do not carry a threat of imprisonment have no right to a lawyer.
Many are back in court because they missed their class. Everyone is offered a second chance — a mother, in court with her young children, pleaded for more flexible dates so she wouldn’t miss the class again. The judge agreed to work with her, but added that the classes fill up quickly.
American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania lawyer Mary Catherine Roper says that cracking down on quality-of-life offenses wantonly feeds poor people into the criminal justice system — and backfires.
“These are real criminal records that cause people real problems in trying to get employment, trying to get loans, trying to get education,” says Roper. “If you make it impossible for people to get honest jobs, they’re going to find some other way to feed themselves.”
The police crackdown has also hit the city’s homeless hard, says Hillary Coulter, who works at a shelter operated by the nonprofit Bethesda Project. Homeless men, many battling alcoholism or mentally ill, are more likely to get citations and less likely to be able to deal with the consequences than the average person, she says.
She’s speaking from experience — Coulter says she is now in court “every week” on behalf of the men in her charge. Nearly a quarter of those in her shelter have been ticketed recently, usually for loitering or drinking on the street, she says. Some may not understand that they are being charged with a crime, or that they have to show up in court. Fewer are able to scrape together $200 to pay a fine.
“I check all my guys’ docket sheets when they come in now,” Coulter says. “It’s a big hassle. We had to go to three different court dates to clear up one citation.”
But many homeless men are repeatedly ticketed. One man at Coulter’s shelter, named John, has received 33 citations, only one of which dates from before the 2009 rule change. Since 2011, John has been cited 18 times for loitering, 13 times for “trespassing” (Coulter says usually on the steps of a building) and once for “obstructing a highway.”
“[John] is a chronically homeless guy, he’s been homeless for 10 years. He has schizophrenia, so he can’t hold a conversation with you. He can’t track you,” Coulter says. “He can’t understand what you’re saying when he’s unmedicated.”
Coulter says the citations also resulted in the suspension of John’s welfare benefits, Medicaid and food stamps, and froze his spot on the city’s lengthy wait list for permanent public housing.
“They won’t deny you outright, but they will put your benefits on hold until the open cases are resolved,” says Coulter.
It’s an uphill battle. Although Coulter and others were able to get some of John’s cases withdrawn, he was automatically found guilty and fined for many others in absentia. He currently owes more than $6,300, which alongside the failures to show up to court, led to a bench warrant being issued for his arrest.
“One night around 1 a.m., the bench warrant unit came to [the shelter to] arrest him,” Coulter says. “They searched the whole building even though the staff said he wasn’t there.”
John already suffered from paranoid delusions, and he vanished after the appearance of the warrant unit at his shelter on May 8. Coulter is still trying to get his active cases resolved.
Of John’s 33 citations, 29 were issued by the same two police officers.
Neighbors say that Morlai, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, is a “nice guy” who seems to suffer from mental illness and a drinking problem. On a recent afternoon, he was out on a corner near 19th District headquarters, at 62nd and Haverford streets, with a can of Four Loko wrapped in a black plastic bag.
“I don’t like to go far away [from home],” said Morlai, asked why he liked to drink on this corner. “When I have money, I go to a bar. When I don’t, I’m here. I don’t try to cause any problems, I’m just chilling.”
As Morlai described his experiences, he silently turned and tossed his can into a nearby alley as two police on foot patrol approached. After a half-hearted search for the can, the officers warned Morlai about drinking on the street and moved on.
He was lucky, this time. Morlai, who stays at a local shelter, has been ticketed at least 34 times over the last year alone and has court dates scheduled every week for the next month, all related to recent public-drinking citations.
But the last time he traveled to Center City Municipal Court to deal with his numerous citations, he says he was arrested and “locked up for seven days.
“They said I had to learn my lesson,” he told a reporter, before heading across the street to buy more alcohol.
Roman, the criminologist, says that a broken-windows policy persists amongst law enforcement not because it’s effective, but because “for every complicated problem, there’s a solution that’s simple, intuitive and wrong. And broken windows is simple, intuitive and wrong.”
Bologna says that lawbreakers might not like the program, but it works. He likes to point to behavior at Disney World as an example. “People, no matter who they are, they know to use the trash cans. You don’t see people throwing their cigarettes on the ground. … You never really hear about too many problems at Disney World. Maybe people are too friendly. Maybe they’re on happy pills.”