City's 'stop and frisk' policy draws lawsuit

State Rep. Jewell Williams (right) is among the plaintiffs represented in the class-action lawsuit.
State Rep. Jewell Williams (right) is among the plaintiffs represented in the class-action lawsuit.
Posted: November 05, 2010

CITY POLICE have targeted thousands of minority residents and illegally stopped and searched them for no reason under Mayor Nutter's amped-up "stop and frisk" policy, a team of prominent civil-rights attorneys allege in a lawsuit filed yesterday.

The class-action lawsuit - filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the law firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg - claims that Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey "instituted more aggressive stop-and-frisk practices," and then, "with deliberate indifference," failed to properly train, supervise and discipline officers who routinely violate civil rights.

"These unconstitutional actions have had and continue to have a devastating effect on the lives of many Philadelphians," attorney Paul Messing said. "Beyond that, these police practices have had no real impact on stemming criminal conduct in our city. They just subject innocent people to humiliating and degrading treatment."

The suit was filed on behalf of eight black and Latino men, including state Rep. Jewell Williams, a former Temple University police officer who plans to run for city sheriff in next year's Democratic primary.

Officers handcuffed Williams in March 2009 and placed him into the back seat of a squad car after he inquired about the well-being of two elderly men whom police had detained - then subsequently released - during a car stop in Williams' North Philly neighborhood.

Williams, who was stopped about three car-lengths back, said he emerged from his state-leased Chrysler after he overheard an officer threatening to beat up one of the elderly men. Williams alleged that another officer ordered him to "get back in the f---ing car," even though Williams said he identified himself as a state legislator.

In an interview yesterday, Williams said the nightmarish incident "was like a flashback to the civil-rights era."

"You can command attention and respect without calling a person an 'm-effer,' " Williams said. "When you use 'm-effer' and all kinds of words like that, what comes next is pushing and shoving. . . . Those are words that, in my opinion, were used in slavery days."

When asked how the lawsuit might affect his bid for sheriff, Williams said he hoped that voters would want a sheriff who stands up for their civil rights and wouldn't "turn his head to bad things."

Ramsey declined to comment, citing the open lawsuit. City Solicitor Shelley Smith, however, said Ramsey has beefed up police training and supervision, responded quickly to allegations of abuse and meted out discipline when warranted. Last month, Ramsey added more investigators to the Internal Affairs Bureau.

"The Police Department and Commissioner Ramsey take seriously the need to protect the constitutional rights of citizens," Smith said.

Yesterday afternoon, Nutter said he had not yet reviewed the suit. But he said the "stop and frisk" policy was legal and effective if used correctly. Since taking office in January 2008, Nutter has championed "stop, question and frisk" policing as part of a plan to fight crime and get guns off the street.

Nutter stressed that overall crime, including violent crime, is down and said race is not a factor in who gets searched. He also noted that "stop and frisk" - in which police stop people suspected of criminal activity and pat them down for illegal weapons - was being used before he became mayor.

ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper said: "You can't go into a neighborhood as an officer and say, 'This is a high-crime area; everybody is under suspicion.' That's not what our country is about."

Citing Police Department statistics, the lawsuit says that pedestrian stops have jumped dramatically, from 102,319 in 2005 to 253,333 in 2009 - an increase of 148 percent. Of those pedestrians stopped in 2009, about 72 percent were African-American and only 8 percent led to arrests.

"Most of those arrests had nothing to do with the reason they were stopped," Messing said. "The charges were often for disorderly conduct because they complained they were stopped for no reason."

In response to the argument that "stop and frisk" has reduced violent crime, Messing said, "This is a high price to pay - constitutional violations on a massive scale in an effort to find a microscopic amount of criminal activity."

The lawsuit, which names nine officers individually and at least 12 as "John Does," asks the court to bar police from stopping and frisking residents on the basis of race or nationality or without reasonable suspicion. The suit also seeks court-mandated training, supervision and discipline to eliminate the "unconstitutional" policy.

The named plaintiffs in the suit seek unspecified compensatory damages.

Among the plaintiffs are John Cornish and Carl Cutler, both 65, who were detained in the incident connected to state Rep. Williams; Mahari Bailey, a Georgetown-educated lawyer who has been stopped four times since 2008, all allegedly without cause; and Fernando Montero, a Princeton graduate who works as a University of Pennsylvania ethnographer and is working on a book about the Latino community.

Other plaintiffs are Timothy Streaty, 32, who worked several years at a pharmaceutical company; Gregory Blackmon Jr., 21, a Simon Gratz High School graduate who has worked as a carpenter; and Preston Fulton, 21, who, the suit says, has been unlawfully stopped numerous times by officers in North Philadelphia and in one case was pushed against a wall and frisked.

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