Federal civil rights lawsuit spurs Philadelphia mayor to sign executive orders

By Jon Campisi | Jun 21, 2011

The City of Philadelphia has agreed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed seven months ago over the police department’s controversial “stop and frisk” crime-fighting tactic.

The announcement was made during a City Hall news conference Tuesday, June 21, during which Mayor Michael Nutter, flanked by a cadre of police officials, city representatives and plaintiffs’ attorneys, signed two executive orders that were inspired by the federal lawsuit.

The first executive order will establish an electronic database comprising of the Philadelphia Police Department’s pedestrian stop reports. The idea is to hold police accountable when it comes to stop–and-frisk searches, in which people believed to be carrying weapons are patted down during police interaction.

The tactic, while controversial since some claim blacks are often disproportionately stopped in an urban environment, does pass constitutional muster, the mayor said during the press conference. The courts have ruled as much.

Mayor Nutter also signed an executive order that updates the processing of complaints alleging police misconduct, such as the one that led to Bailey v. City of Philadelphia, filed in November at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The order will make it easier for citizens who feel they’ve been wronged to report police misconduct.

The first executive order was to be effective immediately, while the second is to take effect within 60 days, the mayor said.

The lawsuit that inspired the city to take action contended that a handful of citizens who were detained on the streets during stop-and-frisk had their 14th Amendment rights violated. The 14th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“As a direct and proximate result of defendants' policies, practices and/or customs, thousands of persons in the plaintiff class, and in particular Blacks and Latinos, have been subjected to unconstitutional seizures, frisks, searches and detentions by the defendants and other PPD officers, at times accompanied by the unreasonable use of force,” the complaint stated.

During the news conference, the main plaintiff in the case, Mahari Bailey, told a group of reporters he was pleased with the situation’s outcome.

“Today’s a good day,” he said. “Being proactive in the future is what’s important. I’m happy with the agreement.”

City Solicitor Shelly Smith, who unveiled the terms of the settlement at the news conference, said seven of the plaintiffs received $115,000 each. The eighth defendant, state Rep. Jewell Williams, did not receive a settlement because his claim, which was filed as its own separate lawsuit in the beginning, and later merged with the Bailey case, has since been separated out of the class action suit.

The plaintiffs were represented by attorneys David Rudovsky and Paul Messing of the Center City, Philadelphia firm of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

At the news conference, the two attorneys said they were pleased that the city agreed to not only settle the lawsuit, but draft new policies and procedures because of it.

“We are very pleased to be part of this agreement,” Rudovsky said.

“We believe working together and looking to the future,” can help ensure that pedestrian stops are conducted constitutionally and without the use of racial profiling, he noted.

Rudovsky said enhancing the stop-and-frisk policy is crucial, since the number of pedestrian stops on the streets of Philadelphia have increased over time.

In 2009, he said, there were more than 250,000 such stops across the city. That number has gone up over time.

Rudovsky said the two executive orders signed by the mayor will help hold police accountable so there’s no question that officers’ tactics are heavy-handed or unwarranted.

During his speech, Mayor Nutter talked about the need to make sure officers are conducting pedestrian stops properly, but also stressed that stop-and-frisk tactics are, indeed, legal.

“Community policing supports strong communities,” Nutter said, noting the importance of police being seen in a good light, especially in neighborhoods that may have a natural distrust for cops.

Mary Catherine Roper, who heads up the Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU, also attended the press conference. She, too, expressed pleasure with the terms of the agreement.

“We look forward to working with the city to make the promise of this agreement a reality,” she said.

According to the federal complaint, Bailey, the main plaintiff, who is black, is a Philadelphia native who was a practicing lawyer living in the city at the time of his detention by police.

The complaint outlines four separate incidents, ranging from early 2008 to May 2010, in which Bailey was detained by police, once for “being in the wrong neighborhood,” and other times for no apparent just cause.

In each of the successive incidents after the first, Bailey told officers he was an attorney, and that he had had previous encounters of a similar nature, and that he objected to the treatment, but each time he was met with resistance.

“They felt that the police had no reason to treat them like that,” attorney Messing, at the news conference, said on the rationale behind the filing of the lawsuit by the plaintiffs. “When people feel that they’re being mistreated, that cooperation can quickly evaporate.”

Mayor Nutter said while stop-and-frisk pedestrian stops will continue to be carried out by city police, they will be done in a “constitutional manner” so incidents like the ones outlined in the lawsuit hopefully won’t be repeated.

According to the complaint, Williams, the state representative for the 197th Legislative District in North Philadelphia, was standing beside his car, which was stuck in traffic because a holdup created by a vehicle stop of one of the other plaintiffs in the case, when he was approached by officers and, in a profane-laden tirade, told to get back in his vehicle.

Williams identified himself as a state official, but officers nevertheless placed him under arrest for disorderly conduct.

The lawsuit states that at the time of the March 28, 2009 incident, Williams was merely trying to aide the other plaintiff, identified as John Cornish, who was being removed and roughly handcuffed by police.

Williams was ultimately released with no formal charges filed against him.

Williams, who lives in his North Philadelphia district, has his sights set on another elected position, that of Philadelphia Sheriff. He won May’s Democratic primary for the office. In Philadelphia, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-1, Williams is seen as the favorite to lead the office, where, before his political life, he worked as a sheriff’s deputy.

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