Arrests for trespassing in Philadelphia businesses, already rare, may go extinct under Police Commissioner Richard Ross’ “defiant trespass” policy announced last week. Think of it as white glove treatment for vagrants.
OK, beneficiaries of the policy are not all vagrants, and the slow-to-arrest concept fits current municipal policy to empty the jails as much as possible. If we can avoid the cost of refilling them with nonviolent offenders, we should do so. And also protect the city from another gigantic PR black eye.
The policy seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There has been no mass roundup of trespassers — just the opposite, as I demonstrated in April with a one-month snapshot of the four Center City zip codes. Only eight trespassing arrests were made in 30 days. None was in a retail store.
In the infamous April 12 arrest at a Starbucks, the cops were called by the manager when Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson refused to buy something. The two men were charged with defiant trespass, handcuffed, and taken into custody. That led to protests. The visuals of the arrest went national and looked bad, but Internal Affairs found that the officers followed state law and did not violate then-existing police policy.
“Police officers acted with professionalism and respect,” FOP president John McNesby tells me. The commissioner’s memo, he says, shifts a “Starbucks issue” into a “police issue,” and McNesby suspects “this policy is a result of arm twisting from City Hall.” I waited several days without success to talk to Commissioner Ross, so his published words will speak for him.
In a video posted on the Saturday following the Thursday arrest, Ross said police “were called there, for a service. … These officers did absolutely nothing wrong.” Mayor Kenney also defended actions of the police, while some black elected officials disagreed.
Ross’ statement was clear and unambiguous, but had a shelf life of less than a week. On April 19, precisely one week after the arrest, in a noontime news conference, Ross apologized to the two men who were arrested.
Instead of saying the officers had done nothing wrong, “I should have said the officers acted within the scope of the law,” Ross said.
What does that mean? They acted lawfully, but wrongly?
Ross also said, “No one asked me to do this. No one made me do this.”
He was unfamiliar with the Starbucks business practice, said the commissioner (who’s probably a Wawa guy) that allows people to linger without making a purchase. Except I was told by a Starbucks spokesperson that Starbucks’ policy in all Philadelphia stores is that a purchase is required.
Starbucks, in a fit of guilt and self-loathing, ordered all its staff to undergo bias training and rescinded its purchase-necessary policy, which was often ignored. The coffee chain’s management also declared the restrooms to be free-go zones, although alcohol and drug use are prohibited. (Until that’s found to be discriminatory. Today’s social norms are malleable.)
After weeks of reviewing the situation, Ross last week issued a four-page memorandum of how cops are to handle defiant trespass. In a word: Cautiously.
It requires officers to first “attempt to deescalate and mediate the disturbance,” then “request a Crisis Intervention Officer,” and also request a supervisor. Five conditions must be present before an arrest can be made.
There’s some overlap, but here are the key points: The person must understand that he/she is trespassing, and notice of that must be personally delivered by the owner or an authorized person. Police cannot be the authorized person. “We turn into counselors,” grouses McNesby, with some justification.
The new policy states police retain the discretion to not make an arrest.
Which seems to be what the memo wants.