5 Questions: ACLU’s Mary Catherine Roper on “Stop-and-Frisk” in Philly

What constitutes a physical injury, are mobile apps to record police the answer, and has the city actually improved its practices?

Mary Catherine Roper

News emerged this week that a Philly teen suffered a ruptured testicle during a stop-and-frisk encounter with police. Mary Catherine Roper is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which has challenged the stop-and-frisk policies of the Philadelphia Police. She spoke with Philly Mag about where those efforts stand:

The ACLU has, in the past,  sued the police department over stop-and-frisk policy. Where do those efforts stand right now?

The ACLU has, along with the famous civil rights firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, sued the Philadelphia Police, the city really, over a stop-and-frisk policy in November 2010. In June 2011, the city entered with us into a consent decree, which is basically an agreement that has been monitored and enforced by a federal judge, which requires the city to put into place a whole bunch of changes with respect towards stop-and-frisk practices, and also gave us an opportunity to monitor what the police are doing with respect to stop-and-frisk practices.

We have, since the entry of that consent decree, filed several reports with the court and the city has filed a couple of its own reports. In our reports we say pretty plainly that we don’t think the city has improved its stop-and-frisk practices, that we aren’t seeing those results in the documents that we are reviewing. So that is an ongoing process.

We are continuing to monitor their practices, try to make them improve their practices, and of course ultimately if they don’t do a better job, we’ll ask the courts to sanction them for not improving their practices.

Stop-and-frisk encounters don’t often result in physical injury though, do they?

It really depends, first of all, on what you call a physical injury. I think that very often people are handcuffed, pushed against the wall, pushed against a car and things like that, and those would usually be minor injuries, but certainly minor injuries occur. Sometimes they devolve into much more serious confrontations.

ACLU chapters in other states, and I know in New York and New Jersey, certainly, have offered mobile phone apps that actually help record video of police during stop-and-frisk encounters. Is such an effort needed here?

I’m not sure that the video recording is what is going to address this situation. We certainly appreciate getting reports from people about their encounters with the police in terms of stop-and-frisk and certainly take note when these things are posted on YouTube or other social media. That kind of account straight from the street is really important in our ability to go to the city and say, “What are you doing about this?”

There is a line of defense that stop-and-frisk, rather than harassing primarily African-American communities, actually helps protect them from black-on-black crime. Is that a fair defense?

When we think “stop-and-frisk,” we’re giving a shorthand that’s not perfectly accurate. The correct legal term is an “investigative stop,” and an investigative stop is supposed to be done only when the person you are stopping has given some sort of indication of criminal behavior — not enough to maybe arrest him and charge him with a crime, but some indication of criminal behavior. When you actually stop and frisk people who are behaving in a criminal manner, I think it is a very useful tool for reducing crime no matter what neighborhood you’re in. But once you are stopping people who give no indication of criminal behavior, you just can’t tell me that that has anything to do with reducing crime.

There’s also been a shift lately as Philly’s crime rate has dropped onto a tactic called “focused deterrence,” where the police focus their efforts on specific gang members rather than perhaps broad communities like we’ve been talking about. Is this being handled better from a civil liberties point of view, or are there problems with that tactic as well?

So I don’t have specific information on that program. I will tell you that any time the police are focusing their efforts based on who someone is rather than what that person is doing, you run a real risk of, first of all, racial profiling, and second of all, a waste of police resources. Our police should be focusing on the people who are actually doing suspicious things, not the people that they think simply look suspicious.

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