Court battle looms over Philly police refusal to turn over stop-and-frisk records
Ever wonder if Philadelphia's Police Department made any strides in 2015 in the way officers stop and frisk pedestrians — especially after the ACLU sued the city over unconstitutional stops?
The Defender Association of Philadelphia has, and it requested scores of records on pedestrian and vehicle stops from the department, which has fought hard to keep the information confidential.
The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records sided with the association, saying the city must comply with its request. But this week, attorneys for the city have appealed, moving the battle to the Court of Common Pleas. The court documents can be read below.
"It's a very critical area for public scrutiny," said Kelvyn Anderson, who leads the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission. "Stop-and-frisk has been one of the more contentious aspects of policing in our city for many years now. Allowing the public to view this information would, hopefully, let people make some judgments on that on their own."
The Kenney administration say they were surprised by the appeal.
“At this time, the City’s Solicitor Office is working with the Defender’s Association on this case,” said Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt. “Had we been made aware, this appeal would not have been filed.”
Hitt said the appeal had been in progress under the Nutter administration and that City Solicitor Shelley Smith “was not forthcoming” about what lawsuits the Kenney administration was inheriting.
Still, a motion to dismiss this appeal has not yet been filed .
The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in 2010, alleging that city police were systemically stopping pedestrians without reasonable suspicion and that the stops disproportionately targeted blacks and Latinos.
As a result of the suit settlement, the department has been under a court-appointed monitor. And a judge ordered the department to report extensive data on all stops-and-frisk incidents, which is to be stored in a database.
Ever since the court order, the department has filed public progress reports to the court-appointed monitor and to federal court. The last one, filed in March, found that nearly four out of 10 stops in 2014 were unlawful, having been conducted without reasonably suspicion. That was fodder for critics of the department, but it was an improvement from 2012, when nearly half of all stops violated the Fourth Amendment.
But the association of city defense attorneys wanted more information —including the location of the stop, the reason for the stop, the race of the suspect and what, if anything, was seized — from January 2014 to the present.
The association did not ask for the police incident reports connected with the stops, nor did it ask for the identity of the individual stopped.
Still, city officials said the request constituted an "unreasonable burden." They also said that aggregate information was exempt from state open records laws because it was related to a criminal investigation.
Yet the Office of Open Records determined that, because the court order requires reporting the data, the police department is obligated to turn it over when requested. What's more, the aggregate data only does not constitute "investigative information," the office found.
The looming court battle over the stop-and-frisk data coincides with Mayor Jim Kenney's sharp comments about the department reforming its practices around pedestrian interactions, and the newly appointed Police Commissioner Richard Ross' willingness to advance dozens of police reforms set in motion by Charles Ramsey.
The department's own reporting shows that pedestrian stops are problematic, Anderson said, so withholding key information about how rank-and-file officers interact with the public is a step in the wrong direction.
"From our point of view," Anderson said, "we need as much public information on the table as possible."
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