Suburban Cops, Tough Tactics

In area towns, nuisance laws result in a disproportionate number of arrests of African Americans, often by nearly all-white police forces.

Posted: December 15, 2007

The Rev. Reggie Brooks, pastor of a storefront church in the toughest part of Pottstown, once counted himself as a strong supporter of a police crackdown on the pushers and hoodlums who tormented his neighborhood.

That ended on the day his 14-year-old nephew and a friend were hauled out of a neighborhood barbershop last year as suspected drug dealers.

After ordering the teenagers to put their hands in the air and spread their legs, the police found no drugs. They left without an apology.

"There was a time when there was a relationship between the police and the people," said Brooks, who is African American. "Now, I don't think the cops respect the community."

As Philadelphia debates a tougher style of neighborhood policing, public officials and community leaders need look no farther than some of the city's older suburbs to see what happens when police make thousands of nuisance arrests to fight drugs and violence.

Pottstown, Coatesville and Darby, blue-collar towns where jobs have fled and crime has risen, have in recent years consistently recorded some of the highest arrest rates in America for minor offenses, an Inquirer investigation shows.

Norristown, Bristol Township and Colwyn also rely on these high-arrest strategies. Last year alone they dramatically increased arrests for disorderly conduct and other minor crimes.

Year after year, these municipalities and others across the state aggressively enforce noise, nuisance, loitering, disorderly conduct and jaywalking statutes, focusing mainly on high-crime neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of minorities.

Many police chiefs across the suburbs say nuisance laws are an indispensable tool in their quest to rid the streets of serious criminals; they say many of those arrested have long records for drug dealing or violence. They insist that they do not target offenders by race.

But these aggressive tactics, employed in largely minority neighborhoods, mean that African Americans are arrested for nuisance offenses far more frequently than whites - at rates dramatically out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

Marine Sgt. Kareem Cox, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, said he was standing beside his sister's car in Darby in July when an officer yelled at him to move. When he answered, "You don't have to yell," she put him in handcuffs and charged him with disorderly conduct, an offense later dismissed.

"This will follow me for life," he said.

Inquirer analysis

The Inquirer spent more than a year analyzing arrest data, studying court records, observing police, and conducting scores of interviews in cities and towns in Southeastern Pennsylvania and across the state.

Among the findings:

Many of the laws used to make these arrests are so vague and poorly drafted that experts say they violate the Constitution. More than 4,000 people in Pennsylvania have been arrested since 2000 under local loitering statutes, including some that outlaw standing in public or "hanging out."

Despite a national trend toward more diverse police forces, the suburban departments embracing these high-arrest tactics are nearly all white and, in some cases, getting whiter - a gulf that increases tensions and creates mistrust between police and communities.

Some police departments and Pennsylvania county jails routinely strip-search all defendants, including those arrested on minor nuisance laws - though federal courts have consistently ruled that such blanket strip-search policies are unconstitutional.

Although these policies can help curb serious crime, at least temporarily, their long-term record is mixed at best. In Darby, Pottstown and Coatesville, serious crime has gone up since 2000, statistics show.

These high-arrest policies now in vogue in many cities across Pennsylvania and the nation also come with a cost.

The tactics can - and often do - go awry, resulting in the arrest of many innocent people, and creating resentment and racial strains in community after community, The Inquirer's review shows.

Bucks County NAACP president John Jordan said Bristol Township police clear street corners with loitering arrests that enable them to search suspected drug dealers - and anyone else picked up in the sweeps.

"It's like every kid who is black is supposed to have a gun," he said. "I think there's a lot of it that is profiling."

Some officials here and around the country, including Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, believe that police can reduce violence by a relentless focus on enforcing small crimes, an approach made famous in New York City under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

"I think it was Giuliani in New York who [identified] the broken-window syndrome," said Bristol Township Chief James McAndrew. "And he's 110 percent right."

That theory - put forth in the 1980s by the criminologists James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University and George L. Kelling of Rutgers University - says one broken window in a building, if left unrepaired, encourages more window-breaking and a sense of lawlessness.

With a crackdown on petty offenders, they argued, order can be restored and law-abiding citizens can again feel they are in control of a city.

As New York's police arrested more petty offenders, they found more people who had guns or drugs, or who informed on bigger criminals.

But, in an interview, Kelling said he never advocated a permanent street-clearing operation in African American neighborhoods, a strategy he said is guaranteed to create anger and fray relations between police and citizens.

It's especially troubling, he said, when the forces making those arrests are nearly all-white.

"You can," Kelling said, "have racial profiling in pedestrian stops."

Searching two teens

Reggie Brooks' Victory Christian Life Center, on Washington Street in downtown Pottstown, is just a few blocks from the barbershop where police grabbed his nephew, Lamar Nesbitt, and a friend, JiHad Tanner, also 14, last year.

"It was 'Put your hands on your head and spread your legs,' " recalled Nesbitt, an honor student who helps out at his uncle's church. "They didn't tell us why or nothing. They just searched us."

The police found nothing and told the youths to return to the shop and finish their haircuts.

When Brooks and other relatives asked for an explanation, police said the youths matched the description of two cocaine dealers. Brooks later learned that police were seeking "two black men with hooded shirts," not 14-year-old boys.

"It doesn't matter whether you're a good kid or a bad kid, you get thrown in the pot," Brooks said. "Lamar was upset that night. I could tell. He was hurt."

The aggressive tactics Pottstown police demonstrated that day show up dramatically in the town's arrest rates, some of the highest in America.

For years, it has stood out for exceptionally high patterns of disorderly conduct arrests - in 2005, it ranked 15th highest among more than 4,000 U.S. cities with populations above 10,000, according to FBI data. The year before, it ranked eighth.

Since 2000, Pottstown has charged people with disorderly conduct at eight times the per-capita rate of Pittsburgh and nine times that of Philadelphia.

Pottstown Chief Mark Flanders said he has priorities that are different from those in the state's major cities. For his town, he said, stopping minor "quality-of-life" offenses is a big part of the department's mission.

Typically, disorderly conduct laws lump together infractions such as loitering and being a nuisance.

While police always try to make an arrest in serious felonies such as murders and robberies, criminologists say enforcement of petty offenses is usually discretionary - and can be a barometer of how different departments approach their jobs.

Pottstown, Darby and Coatesville have used that law far more aggressively than nearly all other American cities, according to The Inquirer's analysis.

In 2005, Coatesville ranked sixth in the nation in its rate of disorderly conduct arrests; Darby ranked seventh.

Last year, Darby's disorderly conduct arrests jumped 76 percent. Meanwhile, Coatesville's arrests fell dramatically after African Americans took control of City Council and began to debate allegations of racial profiling.

Police officers in these cities say the tough tactics are necessary.

In Pottstown, which has lost its industrial base and hundreds of factory jobs, Flanders said the crackdown on minor crimes during the last few years has helped the town "get ourselves back on our feet."

Though poorer than most towns in Montgomery County, Pottstown has succeeded in attracting new businesses and townhouses.

"There are a lot of new businesses coming in, a lot of new homes actually being built in the community," Flanders said. "Our part in that - in order to help that process along, we needed to start identifying more quality-of-life issues and attacking them."

Much the same high-pressure approach is used in some small towns.

In Delaware County's Colwyn, sandwiched between Darby and Southwest Philadelphia, Chief Bryan Hills uses nuisance laws as a border guard might.

"We're keeping the line. What I say is that we hold our borders," Hills said. "Darby's activity stops in Darby, and Philly's stops in Philly."

Officers in Colwyn, a town of 2,500 with relatively little serious crime, use minor arrests as a way to clear street corners and to pat down people they consider suspicious.

"Certain things we have zero tolerance for," Hills said, explaining that he does not allow youths to congregate on corners. "If we have to tell you twice, you're going to get locked up."

Hills, a part-time Darby officer before he was hired as Colwyn's chief, is proud of his town's reputation for no-tolerance policing.

Men from Philadelphia are often reluctant to even enter his town, he observed. When going out with women from Colwyn, they will drop their dates off - even at 2 a.m. - at the Cobbs Creek border with the city. Women walking home late are also stopped and questioned, Hills said.

"They say, 'My boyfriend won't come into Colwyn,' " Hills said. "Probably a good policy."

'Stop-and-frisk'

Nutter and others are pushing for an approach called "stop-and-frisk," in which police step up street searches, looking for guns.

Some police departments use nuisance laws in much the same way: Once someone is under arrest, police can search the person for drugs or weapons.

"If you can arrest them for disorderly conduct, cursing or fighting or whatever, that's another way to get your hands into their pocket," said Police Chief Robert Grice of Lumberton, N.C. - which had the highest rate of disorderly conduct arrests in the nation in 2004 and 2005, the latest national data available.

In Coatesville, police for years made more curfew stops, per capita, than all but two or three other cities in the country, using the stops to systematically search teenagers for guns and drugs.

But do these crackdowns work over the long haul? The statistical evidence is far from clear.

Major crimes in Pottstown - such as murder, robbery, burglary and serious assaults - have gone up by more than a third since 2000, FBI data show. In Darby, they increased by 16 percent over that time.

Coatesville ended its high-arrest policies more than a year ago, but there, too, the effect on crime is difficult to measure. With fewer people being arrested and searched, drug cases plummeted. This year, murders, rapes and robberies fell, while the rate of serious assaults climbed.

Nationally, these tactics also have produced mixed results in some large cities. In Baltimore, three police commissioners for years pursued high-arrest, zero-tolerance strategies. Supporters of the tactics say they helped curb serious crime, including homicides.

But the tactics also clogged Baltimore's jails, jammed courts with petty charges, angered many citizens, and finally led to lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP, alleging illegal arrests and strip searches. This year, homicides jumped, and the city hired a new commissioner who has disavowed the high-arrest tactics.

Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford said the department now tries to target "only the bad guys." The clear-the-street-corners approach can trigger a community backlash, he said.

"We need to make sure every arrest directly addresses the violent crime issue in those neighborhoods," Clifford said.

A racial disparity

Pottstown's Flanders, Colwyn's Hills, and the other suburban police chiefs insist that these tactics have nothing to do with race.

"We have the most drug-dealing going on . . . where the residents are of a lower socioeconomic status," Flanders said. "That area is also predominantly African American."

But the aggressive strategies consistently produce arrest rates for blacks that are strikingly out of line with their percentage in the overall population.

In Pottstown, half the people arrested for disorderly conduct are black - in a town with a population about 15 percent African American.

In Darby, black arrests for disorderly conduct soared last year, up 92 percent. White arrests for the crime dropped by 17 percent.

More than eight of 10 people arrested in Darby for disorderly conduct are black; African Americans make up about 60 percent of the town's population.

The pattern is not isolated to a handful of towns in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Statewide, the number of blacks arrested for disorderly conduct was up nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2006 - although there was only a slight increase in the state's black population, and a slight dip in black arrests for violent crime.

During the same period, white disorderly conduct arrests dropped by 6 percent.

Tough balancing act

These tangled issues of crime and race are a difficult balancing act for police - and perhaps an even tougher one for African Americans.

People in black neighborhoods, often besieged by crime, clamor for a visible police presence and effective enforcement, said Kareem Johnson, an African American councilman in Coatesville.

"If I'm surrounded on a corner by 30 or 40 teenagers, I'm going to want police," he said.

But Johnson said supercharged arrest tactics won't work if people feel they are being abused because of their race - a problem he said he frequently heard from his constituents under the old police administration.

"If they act that way," he asked, "do you think I'm going to help them?"

These conflicted feelings in the African American community - demands to crack down on criminals, and resentment when police go too far - can be found within the same families.

In Bucks County's Bristol Township, Marcus Sargeant was arrested by police for loitering just a week before he went off to play football at Lackawanna College.

A police cruiser pulled up outside the home of a high school teammate, and an officer called both youths over to the car. He put handcuffs on them as he wrote out citations.

"I felt like, 'Why me? I'm trying to go to college,' " Sargeant said.

As far as Sargeant and his friend could tell, their only offense was being outside in Bloomsdale-Fleetwing, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Bucks County and one of the town's most popular outdoor drug markets. A judge dismissed the charge.

But Sargeant's grandmother Mary Sargeant was less worried about mistakes by police - even though they grabbed her grandson - than the need to stop the drugs and violence on her street.

She bought her own small rancher 40 years ago on Winder Drive, one of the few areas in Lower Bucks County that welcomed African Americans then.

That was long before crack dealers plied their trade there, long before gunfire echoed at night, long before her 19-year-old neighbor was killed on her street in September.

"Whatever they're doing, I wish they'd do more of it," she said.

Chief McAndrew said loitering laws were a valuable tool for his officers to search known troublemakers. "They know the people who are rumored to carry weapons and those who are not rumored to carry weapons," the chief said.

But Sargeant, now a defensive back for the Reading Express indoor football team, said police can, and do, make mistakes.

"They're right 75 percent of the time," Sargeant said. "The other 25 percent of the time, they've got to be careful."

Constitutional questions

That's the problem, national civil-rights experts say: Laws such as the one used to arrest Sargeant allow police to arrest and search anyone, whether the person is trying to sell drugs or just standing outside a friend's house.

In short, they say, they violate the Constitution.

Lawyers from across the ideological spectrum - from the ACLU to the conservative Judicial Watch - reviewed dozens of loitering statutes and other local ordinances for The Inquirer. The experts said they were amazed that some were still in use.

For example, the Bristol Township law that police used to arrest Sargeant made it illegal to "gather for an unlawful or malicious purpose," along with criminalizing a host of other activities, including sleeping in public.

"How can you tell if a person is gathering for an unlawful or malicious purpose?" asked Paul J. Orfanedes, Judicial Watch litigation director. "It's just very silly."

In Colwyn, a nuisance ordinance prohibits anything that can "injure, annoy, inconvenience, disturb or otherwise adversely affect life" - not to mention "any offense to the sense of hearing, smell or sight." About 100 people have been charged with breaking the law since 2000.

University of Pennsylvania law professor David Rudovsky said the law makes a crime of "almost every human activity."

"It would be hard to write a broader or vaguer ordinance," Rudovsky said.

Loitering laws have typically been viewed skeptically by federal courts. In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court drew a clear standard when it struck down a Chicago loitering law aimed at street gangs.

The law allowed police to break up any gathering of two or more people who were "in any one place with no apparent purpose." More then 40,000 people had been charged, the vast majority black or Latino.

Justice John Paul Stevens, a Chicago native and lifelong Cubs fan, wrote that police could use the law to make arrests outside Wrigley Field - no matter if a person was out "to rob an unsuspecting fan or just to get a glimpse of Sammy Sosa leaving the ballpark."

In spite of the constitutional concerns, at least 83 Pennsylvania towns still have their own loitering laws on the books - some nearly identical to ones that were successfully challenged as unconstitutional in civil-rights suits.

In the last six years, court records show, these laws have been used to make about 4,000 arrests.

Black citizens, white police

Beyond their aggressive tactics, police departments in municipalities such as Bristol, Darby and Colwyn stand out for another reason: They are overwhelmingly white, even as the towns they patrol become home to more minorities.

Upper Darby, with a black population of 21 percent and growing, is another example. Of 127 officers, just one is black, making it one of the whitest police departments of its size in the region.

"Everybody realizes that it's time to get in with the rest of the country," Chief Michael Chitwood said.

But after two years as chief, Chitwood still hasn't hired any new black officers and has no prospect of doing so any time soon. He said it's tough to find qualified applicants.

It's the same story in other towns. In Bristol Township, where the population is about 8 percent African American, civil-rights groups have been fighting for about 30 years to integrate the police department. The result: There are 69 officers - none of them black.

In Pottstown, there are two black officers and 42 white ones in a town 15 percent black.

"You can't have an opposing force of all white officers arresting African Americans and Hispanics," said Camden Police Capt. Joseph Richardson, whose force is two-thirds back and Latino. "No matter what you do, it doesn't cut it."

What's worse is that the numbers of black officers in many Pennsylvania towns are actually declining.

Allentown's department went from 85 percent white in 1990 to 94 percent in 2006. "We're doing as much as we can. We went to colleges, we went all over," Chief Roger MacLean said.

It is the same story in Erie, Harrisburg, York - even with the Pennsylvania State Police. All have fewer minorities now than they had a decade ago, an analysis shows.

Pennsylvania's state police ranks, with only 5 percent black officers, are now far less diverse than in states such as Alabama and Mississippi.

In this failure to hire minorities, Pennsylvania's cities are lagging far behind the rest of the nation. Across America, nearly 24 percent of police were minorities by 2003, up from 15 percent in 1987, according to federal studies.

This woeful record startles state officials.

"Wow!" said Walter M. Phillips Jr., Pennsylvania Crime Commission chairman, after hearing a roll call of departments with few or no minority officers.

Phillips said the commission, which hands out millions of dollars in grants annually, should begin to consider racial diversity when it makes the awards.

"Historically, it's been very difficult for white officers to go into the minority community and command the respect," he said.

State Rep. Harold James (D., Phila.), a former city police officer who once headed the city's association of African American officers, said federal authorities should investigate whether there were "intentional discriminatory policies" in towns that are not hiring black officers.

"It seems to be by design," said James, a board member with the state agency overseeing police training. "We need to call on the Justice Department."

In explaining the lack of blacks in their ranks, police chiefs say they have few openings and even fewer African American applicants; when blacks do apply, the chiefs say, they don't score well enough on civil-service tests.

Yet many of these obstacles appear to melt away when blacks obtain political power.

In 1998, Jacqueline B. Mosley became the first African American mayor of Yeadon, a town with an 80-percent-black population. Yeadon then had two black officers on a force of 15.

A retired Philadelphia public school teacher, Mosley threw herself into the hiring process, interviewing police candidates.

"I spoke to the chief. He used to do all the screening. I said it can't be that way," Mosley said.

Now the department has six blacks and seven whites.

"People have to be concerned about it," she said. "And for years, they haven't been."

Standing on the corner

Two officers on bicycles, both white, approached Jonah T. Wamah and Alfred Bedell, both black, on the sidewalk in Darby and told them to move along.

The encounter took place minutes after the two childhood friends, both Liberian immigrants, bumped into each other on Main Street in September 2004.

Wamah and Bedell hardly looked liked drug dealers or thugs.

Wamah, 53, a photographer for a Philadelphia public-relations firm, was dressed in slacks and dress shirt. He was headed for an appointment with a physical therapist. Bedell, 46, is a home remodeler with real estate in Philadelphia and Delaware County.

But that didn't count for much when police ordered them to leave.

When Bedell protested that they had done nothing wrong, both men were arrested, searched, and charged with disorderly conduct, Wamah said. Neither man has had any other arrests.

Wamah, a U.S. citizen for the last 16 years, said one of the officers gave him a chilling piece of advice: "If you don't like it, go back to where you came from."

After a judge dismissed the charges against both men, Wamah filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit, charging that he was unlawfully searched, then roughed up on the street during his arrest. The town has denied wrongdoing.

Wamah sees his experience as a cautionary tale in an increasingly black town with a nearly all-white police force determined to take a hard line, even if it meant arresting two middle-class, middle-aged black men chatting on Main Street. And it's been hard to put behind him.

"When I see the cops in Darby," Wamah said, "I'm very paranoid."


Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

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