Philadelphia’s 14th police district takes up a huge swath of the city’s Northwest section. From the largely impoverished areas of Germantown to the mixed blue collar and elite acreage of Chestnut Hill, its residents are protected by the same team of officers.
Beginning on August 1, those men and women who were hired to watch out for and act on those suspected of engaging in criminal activity will be held back, and an escalating crime rate in that district–as in the rest of the city–will likely increase.
A federal judge’s recent ruling responded to ongoing litigation over Philadelphia’s stop and search procedures by declaring what will be a three-month pilot program in the 14th district. Police there will no longer be allowed to stop and question or detain people for what one city officer described to me as “quality-of-life violations.” Instead, an officer must tell them to “cease behavior or move along.”
The ramifications are serious. For example, pulling over a car with a broken tail light can lead to the discovery of other illegal activity, such as unlawful gun possession. But such routine measures may no longer be allowed.
Police there will no longer be allowed to stop and question or detain people for what one city officer described to me as “quality-of-life violations.”
If a person involved in a traffic accident cannot produce a driver’s license, that person’s car cannot be confiscated; instead, they can only be told to ask someone to drive them home.
If individuals congregate in front of a business but don’t actually block the entrance, police can’t intercede. That holds true even if those gathered are causing verbal disturbances and therefore discouraging entry of customers.
Many decades ago, as a teenager living in the 14th, I was part of a group who thought it wise to harass a young beat cop. Out of nowhere, a police wagon pulled up, and six of us were brought to the station for a six-hour stay behind bars. It was a long, powerless time that ended at four a.m., after which I never again wanted to be incarcerated.
I wonder how many otherwise “good kids” will now not be confronted for their poor behavior. And how many more will continue unabated to engage in criminal activities?
There have always been some rogue cops whose despicable behavior needed to be better handled. The bulk of the police in Philadelphia and the country overall, however, have acted properly and worked to protect innocent citizens, whether in tightly packed neighborhoods or in the more sparse and affluent ones.
Several years ago, police nationwide began to experience what was termed “The Ferguson Effect,” after a portion of body cam footage revealed the killing of a Black man by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. The violence that resulted caused officers around the country to take a more hands-off approach toward suspects that wouldn’t subject them to enormous pushback for enforcing the law.
Two years ago, in Commonwealth v. Hicks, the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to “detain or frisk a person for carrying a firearm in Pennsylvania.” Police need to have prior knowledge that the carrier did not have a carry permit.
“A lot of our cops are taking early retirement and are not being replaced,” the Philadelphia officer told me. Nationally, retirements have been up by 45% from last year, according to the Police Executive Survey Forum.
As for Philadelphia, the city is now telling would-be officers they must live in the city for one year prior to being hired. That means someone in a suburban area who wants to work in the city must uproot his or her family for one year in the hope they will be hired.
This experiment in the 14th district, endorsed by a city power structure that is steeped in misplaced idealism, will bring great harm to a city with a rising crime rate. We can only hope that citizen outcry will reverse its implementation and result in a safer environment for all.
Jeff Hurvitz (email@example.com) is a free-lance writer who grew up in Philadelphia’s 14th district.