The controversial arrest of two black men at a Center City Starbucks last Thursday has reignited the debate about racial profiling by police and businesses in Philadelphia and around the country.
An Inquirer and Daily News analysis of police data in the districts that cover Center City shows that while police stops have fallen sharply since 2014, blacks are still significantly more likely to be stopped than whites.
When the police stops are listed as occurring indoors, such as in stores, the racial disparity is starker: Blacks account for more than two-thirds of those stops.
David Rudovsky, a civil rights attorney who has been monitoring the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices after a 2011 court settlement with the city, said Mayor Kenney’s administration has made progress in reducing the number of stops citywide and ensuring that a larger percentage are conducted only when police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
He was uncertain why the racial breakdown differs so greatly between indoor and outdoor stops.
“Good question,” Rudovsky said, speculating that some of the stops could originate with a call from a store employee, like in the Starbucks case.
Police data from the Sixth and Ninth Districts — which cover Center City and neighborhoods north up to the Poplar Street border — show that the number of police stops dropped from 23,186 in 2014 to 11,110 in 2017.
Outdoors, blacks accounted for 50 percent of the stops last year, while whites made up about 37 percent. When inside, however, 69 percent of those stopped were black and 19 percent were white. (Stops that police label as “inside” also include a small number of vehicle stops.)
Police define a stop as an encounter with someone who is temporarily detained. Stops can be initiated by an officer or the result of a call.
“It seems like people of color are still regarded with a lot of suspicion inside of these business establishments,” said Minister Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia NAACP.
Muhammad noted that police were called within a couple of minutes of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson entering the Starbucks store at 18th and Spruce. He said the incident highlights the larger problem of racial profiling.
“I’m sure some people are saying, ‘What’s the big deal? Why are they marching?’ But there is a great deal of frustration,” Muhammad said, referring to the protests launched in response to the Starbucks arrests. “The can gets kicked down the road. We’re not talking about it, we’re not dealing with it.”
The Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of the POWER interfaith group that met with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson after the arrests, said the Center City numbers are not unexpected.
“It doesn’t surprise me that black people are stopped more, indoor, outdoor, any place,” Holston said. “That has been the pattern of stop-and-frisk in the city of Philadelphia.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s latest analysis of stop-and-frisk data found that African Americans accounted for 69 percent of stops during the first half of 2017. Blacks represent 41 percent of the city population.
The ACLU has noted that Latinos are also stopped at higher rates. Of the Center City inside stops of Latinos, 38 percent resulted in arrests, the newspapers’ analysis found.
Kenney, who was elected in 2015, said in a statement Friday that the Police Department has made “substantial reforms” under Commissioner Richard Ross in reducing illegal pedestrian stops and frisks.
“Under this administration, the number of pedestrian stops conducted in the city have dropped 50% from 2015 to 2017, along with a similar decrease in the percentage of pedestrian stops conducted without reasonable suspicion,” Kenney said.
Kenney said he and Ross “remain committed to working with the ACLU in the current litigation, with the oversight of the federal judge, to address any issues surrounding racial disparities in those stops.”
The settlement and monitoring process stem from a 2010 federal class-action lawsuit alleging that the Police Department had a pattern of targeting African Americans and Latinos for stops and frisks, often without cause.
Rudovsky praised the Kenney administration and Police Department for training officers on implicit bias and reducing the number of stops, without triggering an increase in overall crime. He said the city has drastically cut the number of unconstitutional stops, from nearly 40 percent to about 20 percent, but said minorities are still disproportionately affected.
“They’re starting to hold police accountable through retraining and warnings and disciplinary action,” Rudovsky said.
Going forward, Rudovsky said officers should exercise more discretion when considering whether to detain or search people who commit very low-level offenses, such as drinking from an open container of alcohol, truancy, and public urination.
“Maybe with a little more discretion,” he said. “You get much less community friction.”
Staff writer Valerie Russ contributed to this article.