Recently, Daniel Denvir and Ryan Briggs of the City Paper published an in-depth look at the thorny issues surrounding so-called "broken windows" policing in some of the Philadelphia's neighborhoods. That refers to aggressive enforcement of low-level, so-called "quality-of-life" offenses, seen as a way to curb more serious violent crime. Increasingly, critics say the policy is breeding neighborhood mistrust, abuses of police power, and is simply locking up too many folks, with negative long-term consequences.
Here's a slice of what they found:
Philadelphia Municipal Court processes summary citations issued by the police and, last week, room 404 was so packed with small-time offenders that a line had formed in the hallway outside. One young man from Kensington lamented that it was the second time he and a friend had to go to court for sitting on the steps of an abandoned house...
American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania lawyer Mary Catherine Roper says that cracking down on quality-of-life offenses wantonly feeds poor people into the criminal justice system — and backfires.
“These are real criminal records that cause people real problems in trying to get employment, trying to get loans, trying to get education,” says Roper. “If you make it impossible for people to get honest jobs, they’re going to find some other way to feed themselves.”
The article strikes me as pretty "fair and balanced," to coin a phrase, with supporters of the policing strategy getting their say alongside the critics. So, as you can imagine, the reaction by the Nutter administration and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who's been having a tough week, has been nothing less than a total freak-out.
Nutter's press secretary, Mark McDonald, my former Daily News colleague, has been doing what he does best, and sending out snarky tweets about the article. Ramsey, for his part, threw out the bizarre allegation that the two City Paper journalists who wrote the piece are "then going up to Abington to go home where you don't have to deal with it" -- even though the reporters each live in West Philly, not far from where they did their man-on-the-street reporting. (Maybe he was confusing them with me?)
What's really sad here is that the Nutter administration and Ramsey are clinging, more than a little defensively, to ideas that are fading fast here in the 2010s, and are far too closed-minded to the new ways of thinking. Just today, Nutter gave his most extensive comments to date on why he's been reluctant to sign the pot-decriminalization bill that overwhelmingly passed City Council. Maybe the bill's not perfect, but Nutter should be working collaboratively toward new policies that do make sense (which would be the opposite of jailing recreational pot smokers). Community policing that is NOT focused on locking everyone up is getting results in places like Ramsey's old stomping ground of D.C, -- and Philly's leaders need to be giving this a look.
And here's a homework assignment, because if their frail hearts can stand it, Nutter, Ramsey and McDonald should read this much tougher -- and yet on the money -- takedown of "broken windows policing" by Jamelle Bouie in Slate. Here's an excerpt:
Under “broken windows,” these biases take center stage. They inform police conduct and lead to situations where blacks and Latinos face the brunt of aggressive policing. Odds are good that a group of black kids hanging out on a stoop will look more suspicious to police, regardless of their behavior. A recent analysis bears this out. According to the New York Daily News, which combed through recent police data from the city, blacks and Latinos account for the vast majority (81 percent) of the 7.3 million police summonses issued under broken windows since 2001.
These citations are minor—“consumption of alcohol on streets” and “bicycle on sidewalk”—but they produce frequent (and potentially dangerous) police encounters. For millions of black and Latino New Yorkers, the city is a literal police state, where officers patrol for papers and detain individuals on the slightest suspicion of illegal conduct.
Despite the title of this post, I doubt that the mayor, his press secretary or the police commissioner will actually read that piece, or change their minds, or catch the new wave of criminal justice reform. The best -- and only -- hope on that front may be the quick arrival of January 2016.