Just how should police respond when neighborhoods are leafleted with racist and anti-Semitic fliers?
It was a question residents and officials in Springfield, Montgomery County, were debating this week at a town hall meeting on diversity and inclusion following two incidents in the township last year, in March and November.
Eddie T. Graham, a member of the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners, told a standing-room-only crowd with an overflow into a hallway that “the local police do not keep track of these incidents." Another resident said police don’t do anything because they consider the fliers free speech.
Turns out that’s partially true.
Springfield Police Chief Michael E. Pitkow, who was not invited to speak at the meeting, said police have and do file reports on the fliers — his records show there have been two incidents in 2018 — and they are investigated.
In a later statement, he wrote: “The Springfield Township Police Department condemns any message promoting the KKK, anti-Semitic commentary, and any other statements that promote hatred. We encourage residents to contact the police department if there is a recurrence of hateful fliers distributed on their properties, and we will respond and investigate the incident.”
However, distributing fliers is “protected speech” under the First Amendment, Pitkow said. Should some other criminal act take place, such as harm to a person or property — arson, criminal trespass, criminal mischief, or institutional vandalism, for example — it would be possible to charge someone with ethnic intimidation as an “add-on.”
Springfield Township Commissioner Jon Cobb said communications between residents and the police department could be improved. Residents have told him they are reluctant to report incidents because they fear retribution.
Pitkow said he thinks “there’s some confusion” among residents when told that the leafletting is a First Amendment problem. They think that’s being used as an excuse instead of police citing state law, and then residents are "assuming we didn’t take reports.”
The latest incident in his township, in late November on Arlingham Road, was investigated by police, and home security system surveillance was sought to see if the distributor was captured on video.
An unofficial tally by the Chestnut Hill Local, collected by looking at news reports, reflected six leafletting incidents in nearby townships since 2017: That year, 500 mailers were sent to areas including East Greenville, Red Hill, and Pennsburg. In May last year, fliers were distributed in Hatboro. In September, it occurred in Abington Township; in October in Cherry Hill; in November in Whitemarsh and Springfield; and on New Year’s Eve in the Elkins Park section of Abington.
Nancy K. Baron-Baer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia, said that from 2014 through 2017, ADL tracked an average of 80 incidents per year in which Klan fliers were left on doorsteps or driveways in neighborhoods around the country. She said 2018 saw a huge surge, with more than 850 incidents nationwide, including 83 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. She urged people to contact the ADL if they received a pamphlet.
She said sometimes these types of leaflets are placed out by a person who prints the fliers and drives an hour or more to other areas. It’s not necessarily an organized or local effort. Still, the pamphlets have the power to inspire great fear in communities. On the fliers distributed in November by “the Loyal White Knights,” interracial dating was condemned: “The #1 Cause of death among young women who date blacks is Black Men.″ It blamed “open borders” on Jews.
”It’s meant to scare, intimidate, and also recruit individuals," Baron-Baer said of the hate speech. "But in our country, we can’t censor someone’s speech. There is freedom of speech. Often these individuals know what they’re doing and where the line is, if it’s not threatening.”