The History of Police Brutality in Philadelphia

Monday, July 25, 2016

By Paul J. Hetznecker

The recent deaths of Philandro Castille and Alton Sterling at the hands of police has brought renewed national attention to the issue of police brutality. Unfortunately, for the families of Jamil Moses Belton Lomax, Hassan Pratt, Albert Purnell, Bryan Jones and Brandon Tate, all killed by Philadelphia Police officers in the past several years, their names have not received the same attention from the national media. Link Police brutality in Philadelphia has been a decades old, systemic problem. Documented in numerous reports, including the United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1981, Link Human Rights Watch 1998, Link, The Ceisler Report , Link and more recently the Justice Department, Link, police misconduct has been an integral part of the culture of the Philadelphia Police Department for decades.

The origin of this current “culture of brutality” is rooted in the militarization of local police forces throughout this country in the 1960’s. It is no coincidence that the “The war on crime,” declared under the Johnson administration in the mid-1960’s, expanded by the Nixon administration in the late 60’s and early 70’s, was at its core, a war on civil liberties. With vast federal resources pouring into urban police forces throughout the country, the militarization of police departments was the political response to burgeoning movements for social justice. Likewise, the “war on drugs,” expanded the scope of attack during the Reagan , Bush I, and Clinton administrations, creating a perpetual decades long war with devastating consequences for impoverished African-American and Latino communities. While overall crime rates remained steady during the 60’s, social upheaval was on the rise as the struggle for social justice gained significant ground. With the infusion of federal money and the mandate to militarize, the traditional policing function expanded from solving crimes to preventing future criminal conduct.
This gave police departments the license to employ aggressive forms of “law enforcement.”

In 1981the The National Commission on Civil Rights published a study on police brutality in the United States. Included in this report was a review of the Philadelphia Police Department’s practices during the 1970’s. The facts detailed in the report could be readily gleaned from today’s headlines:

“The lack of a clear and restrictive deadly force policy in Philadelphia may have been responsible for the many incidents of apparent misuse of deadly force by police there. A review of 32 incidents of police officer shootings of civilians in Philadelphia,14 showed that all victims were male, 24 (or 75 percent) were black, 2 white, 1 Hispanic, 2 American Indian, and 3 were of unknown race. Eighteen of the victims were age 21 or younger and 4 were age 15 or under. Of the 32 victims, at least 19 were fleeing and unarmed at the time police shot at them, and 1 was handcuffed. One innocent bystander lying on the ground was shot by police. While most of the victims were classified as “fleeing felons” by the police, in only one instance had a known felony been committed prior to police pursuit of the victim. Although the victims were usually charged with “aggravated assault on a police officer” or similar charges, their greatest known offense prior to encountering the police had often been such conduct as running when police were seen approaching or driving a car with a missing taillight. According to officers’ accounts of shooting incidents, repeatedly their reasons for shooting were that their guns were taken from them and. they were threatened with them. This provides cause either for them to shoot (when they regain control) or for another officer to shoot.” Link

Further broadening the scope of police power, police departments across the nation made powerful use of the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio. Terry fundamentally changed the way in which the power of government, through the police, could invade the liberty of individuals. Prior to the Terry decision, under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, police in theory (although we know not in practice) could not intrude on the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals unless supported by probable cause. The decision in Terry lowered the bar, permitting police to intrude upon the liberty interests of all, including law abiding citizens, with only reasonable suspicion that a present crime, or future crime might be in the works. Over the past almost five decades the Terry decision has far too often been used to rationalize conduct that went beyond the mandates and undermined the supposed protections. In his dissent against the majority’s decision giving tremendous legal powers to the police, Justice Douglas warned;

“To give the police greater power than a magistrate is to take a long step down the totalitarian path.” Prophetic in his warning of an emerging police state, Douglas cautioned,

“There have been powerful hydraulic pressures throughout our history that bear heavily on the Court to water down constitutional guarantees and give the police the upper hand. That hydraulic pressure has probably never been greater than it is today. Yet if the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can “seize” and “search” him in their discretion, we enter a new regime. The decision to enter it should be made only after a full debate by the people of this country.” Terry v. Ohio (Douglas, dissent) Link

Unfortunately, that debate never happened, and that “new regime” Douglas cautioned against quickly emerged, solidified by fifty years of unprecedented, court sanctioned, police power. As reported by the ACLU, in 2014 over one third of the stops conducted were without reasonable suspicion. Furthermore, the racial disparity is alarming; “ Although Philadelphia’s population is 42.26 percent white, 43.22 percent black, and 8.5 percent Hispanic, 80.23 percent of stops were of minorities. The disparity was even greater for frisks, with minority residents accounting for 89.15 percent of frisks.” Read more, Link

The racial disparity in the number of unlawful stops and frisks conducted by Philadelphia Police mirrors the statistics involving the use of deadly force. As reported by the Justice Department in 2015, 80% of the individuals shot by Philadelphia Police were African-American even though the population of Philadelphia is equally divided between whites and blacks. Read More Link

Embracing the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s, “The Black Lives Matter” Link reflects a renewed struggle for social justice, emerging at a time when the issue of police brutality requires national attention to a decades old problem right here in Philadelphia.

Paul J. Hetznecker

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