Ex-Philly cop: Stop-and-frisk is 'demeaning'

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Retired cop Herbert Spellman quit the force after an injury in 2008. He now wishes the police force would quit using stop-and-frisk tactics, saying he was stopped and manhandled by cops last month while walking to a bus stop.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Retired cop Herbert Spellman quit the force after an injury in 2008. He now wishes the police force would quit using stop-and-frisk tactics, saying he was stopped and manhandled by cops last month while walking to a bus stop.
Posted: October 11, 2013

HERBERT Spellman gave nearly 20 years of his life to the Philadelphia Police Department, retiring in 2008 after a driver rear-ended his police cruiser, knocking him unconscious and sending him to the emergency room.

His body still hurts as a result of the injuries sustained in the crash. But Spellman's pride took a beating more recently.

On Sept. 10, walking to a bus stop in West Oak Lane, Spellman found himself on the other side of the police department's controversial stop-and-frisk policy, he said.

"Demeaning," "nasty," "ridiculous" and "illegal" are the words that come to his mind when he recounts the incident. They weren't police tactics he recognized from his time on the force.

"I'm walking, and the cops come up on an angle. Two officers jump out of the car and grab me by my shirt and pants," Spellman said. "I asked them why they stopped me, and the driver said, 'Why did you look at us and turn and walk away?' "

Spellman, 50, a married father of four, said the officers went through his wallet without his permission, forcefully frisked him and put him in the back of the police cruiser. He said they asked why he was "so far from home," accused him of being on drugs and told him to "shut the f--- up" when he asked why he was being stopped. His cellphone screen was shattered in the process.

"It demeans you. It made me feel like I was a piece of meat," Spellman said. "This is new to me: someone on you, manhandling you. Don't tell me to 'shut the f--- up.' The whole thing shouldn't have happened. I'm a grown man trying to catch the bus."

Spellman was not charged with a crime. He said he had left the ACT Academy Cyber Charter School, where his son was taking a computer class, so he could let his wife into their home in Olney. She had forgotten her key. He said he showed the officers his retired police ID, but it didn't help.

"I don't know what's going on with this police department, but it's terrible," he said.

Lt. Thomas Fournier of Internal Affairs confirmed that Spellman had filed a complaint with his office, but said he couldn't comment on the case.

The experience made Spellman realize what can happen to innocent civilians when they become suspects in the eyes of cops. Spellman, who is black, still doesn't know why he was targeted, but he couldn't help but notice that the two cops who stopped him and the four or five backup officers who arrived were white.

"I don't want to turn it into a racial issue, but that's what it felt like," Spellman said of racial profiling. "When my son leaves the house, I'm going to tell him to be more careful of cops than crooks. Me, being an injured officer with ID, and they're giving me that much trouble? I can't imagine someone without credentials."

'It doesn't work'

Spellman's allegations are all too familiar to Paul Messing, a civil-rights lawyer who is working with the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to monitor the stop-and-frisk program as part of a 2011 legal settlement. In a report to U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell in March, Messing and the ACLU flagged an "intolerably high level" of unlawful pedestrian stops in Philly.

The group's analysis concluded that nearly half of the 215,000 stops last year were made without reasonable suspicion of a crime. Minorities accounted for 76 percent of the stops and 85 percent of the frisks, according to the report. The ACLU estimated that guns were recovered in 0.16 percent of stops, according to an analysis of police sample data.

"A program that was designed to find guns is not accomplishing that goal," Messing said. "It doesn't work. All these folks are having their rights violated for nothing."

In 2007, then-Councilman Michael Nutter made what he called "stop, question and frisk" the signature anti-crime initiative of his successful mayoral campaign. Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald declined to comment last week on whether the administration considers the program a success, instead referring all questions to police.

Gun robberies and assaults with guns have declined under Nutter, but police recorded 331 homicides last year - the same number as in 2008. Homicides are down significantly so far this year, but pedestrian stops also declined by 15 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to the ACLU.

"Stops and frisks are down, as are homicides and shootings," Messing said. "If there was any correlation, you would expect homicides and shootings to go up when stops and frisks go down."

Council President Darrell Clarke, a potential mayoral candidate in 2015, said he is concerned by statistics showing that minorities are targeted in the overwhelming majority of pedestrian stops in Philadelphia. In August, a federal judge ruled that New York City's stop-and-frisk program violated the rights of minorities, saying officers had been stopping innocent people without any objective reason to believe they had committed a crime.

"That's clearly troubling to me," said Clarke, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion and recalls being stopped when he was younger.

"Having grown up in an urban neighborhood, it was an informal process many decades ago," Clarke said. "A group of guys were standing on the corner, and police felt the need to stop and frisk people and it didn't necessarily relate to any action by the group, just being there."

Nutter took office in 2008 promising to make the practice more aggressive.

"I don't like any infringement on people's constitutional rights, but it's a policy that this administration decided to adopt. They talked about it during the election cycle and implemented it," Clarke said, adding that City Council doesn't have the power to change it.

Cops dispute ACLU

Capt. Francis Healy, a police lawyer and special adviser to Commissioner Charles Ramsey, disputed the ACLU analysis, saying many of the stops that the organization deemed unconstitutional may have been legal stops that were not properly portrayed in the paperwork.

"Some things need to be fixed, and we're all for fixing them, but I think our officers are on the right path. We all know our job out there is to uphold and protect the Constitution," Healy said.

"They're trying to save lives. The officers are trying to do the right thing."

Healy maintained that the policy can reduce crime.

"Are pedestrian investigations successful? Yes, when based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity," he said. "If you're stopping someone just based on skin color or where they're standing, it's not going to be an effective tool."

Messing said that police brass have taken steps to reduce unlawful stops, but that if he doesn't see additional changes soon, he will ask the court to intervene.

For Spellman, the retired officer who was stopped, the incident shook his faith in the department for which he once worked. It's the type of experience that can breed distrust in communities where police rely on tips to solve crimes. He said better training might be necessary.

"I guess that's the way some cops are today. There are a lot of good cops out there, but officers like that make it tough for the next officer," Spellman said. " 'Protect and serve.' I think people forget what that means."

- Staff writer Morgan Zalot

contributed to this report.

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