Inquirer editorial: Philly's fine for DNC protesters

Protesters in Logan Circle during the Republican National Convention in 2000.

If Mayor Kenney has his way, Democratic National Convention dissenters may feel the Bern next month - but they shouldn't feel the sting of plastic wrist restraints or endure a jarring ride in the back of a police van.

Nor would anyone else who takes to the streets of Philadelphia in peaceful protest or gets harmlessly carried away for another reason - think Mardi Gras or maybe even another sports championship.

A smart proposal to ease the city's handling of so-called nuisance offenses, proposed by Kenney and passed by a City Council committee last week, would grant the Police Department greater discretion in dealing with disorderly conduct, drunkenness, blocked streets, or failure to heed an order to disperse. Rather than making arrests and leveling criminal charges, police would be able to issue civil fines.

That could help the city avoid a repeat of its embarrassing overreach in handling Republican National Convention protesters in 2000. The more than 400 arrests that stemmed from a crackdown on protesters under then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney resulted mostly in acquittals - as well as legal claims of violated constitutional rights. One pair of protesters faced days in jail with bail set at $1 million. Timoney himself clashed with protesters while riding with a bike patrol, an incident that resulted in dozens of serious charges that were eventually thrown out.

The softening of penalties for nuisance offenses shouldn't mean that police are powerless to control unruly demonstrations, especially when blockaded streets pose a clear threat to public safety. But once protests are cleared, the next step would be to slap demonstrators with $100 fines instead of handcuffs.

The legislation certainly makes sense on the eve of a political convention that should put the city in the national spotlight again. Kenney administration officials note, however, that the new strategy is driven primarily by the need to realign penalties for nuisance offenses in light of the city's decriminalization of marijuana possession.

Both initiatives are part of a broader push to keep people out of the criminal justice system and particularly the city's crowded prisons. Aided by a $3.5 million MacArthur Foundation grant, city officials hope to achieve a one-third reduction in the prison population over a three-year period. The nuisance-law proposal is a small but meaningful step toward that goal.