Pa. crime crackdown has mixed results

Nuisance arrests backed by police seen as polarizing

December 24, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

The Rev. Reggie Brooks, pastor of a storefront church in the toughest part of Pottstown, Pa., once counted himself as a strong supporter of a police crackdown on the drug pushers and hoodlums who tormented his neighborhood.

That ended the day his 14-year-old nephew and a friend were hauled out of a neighborhood barbershop last year as suspected drug dealers.

After ordering the teenagers to put their hands in the air and spread their legs, the police found no drugs. They left without an apology.

"There was a time when there was a relationship between the police and the people," said Brooks, who is black. "Now, I don't think the cops respect the community."

As Philadelphia debates a tougher style of neighborhood policing, public officials and community leaders need look no farther than some of the city's older suburbs to see what happens when police make thousands of nuisance arrests to fight drugs and violence.

Pottstown, Coatesville and Darby, blue-collar Pennsylvania towns where jobs have fled and crime has risen, have in recent years consistently recorded some of the highest arrest rates in America for minor offenses, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation shows.

Norristown, Bristol Township and Colwyn also rely on these high-arrest strategies. Last year alone they drastically increased arrests for disorderly conduct and other minor crimes.

Year after year, these municipalities and others across Pennsylvania aggressively enforce noise, nuisance, loitering, disorderly conduct and jaywalking statutes, focusing mainly on high-crime neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of minorities.

Many police chiefs across the suburbs say nuisance laws are an indispensable tool in their quest to rid the streets of serious criminals; they say many of those arrested have long records for drug dealing or violence. They insist that they do not target offenders by race.

But these aggressive methods, employed in largely minority neighborhoods, mean that blacks are arrested for nuisance offenses far more frequently than whites - at rates drastically out of proportion to their numbers in the population.

The Inquirer spent more than a year analyzing arrest data, studying court records, observing police, and conducting scores of interviews in cities and towns in southeastern Pennsylvania and across the state.

Among the findings:

Many of the laws used to make these arrests are so vague and poorly drafted that experts say they violate the Constitution. More than 4,000 people in Pennsylvania have been arrested since 2000 under local loitering statutes, including some that outlaw standing in public or "hanging out."

Despite a national trend toward more diverse police forces, the suburban departments embracing these high-arrest tactics are nearly all white and, in some cases, getting whiter.

Some police departments and Pennsylvania county jails routinely strip-search all defendants, including those arrested on minor nuisance laws - though federal courts have consistently ruled that such blanket strip-search policies are unconstitutional.

Although these policies can help curb serious crime, at least temporarily, their long-term record is mixed. In Darby, Pottstown and Coatesville, serious crime has gone up since 2000, data show.

These high-arrest policies now in vogue in many cities across Pennsylvania and the nation also come with a cost.

The methods can - and often do - go awry, resulting in the arrest of many innocent people and creating resentment and racial strains in community after community, the Inquirer's review shows.

Bucks County NAACP President John Jordan said Bristol Township police clear street corners with loitering arrests that enable them to search suspected drug dealers - and anyone else picked up in the sweeps.

"It's like every kid who is black is supposed to have a gun," he said. "I think there's a lot of it that is profiling."

Some officials in Philadelphia and around the country, including Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, contend that police can reduce violence by a relentless focus on enforcing small crimes, an approach made famous in New York City under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

But criminologist George L. Kelling of Rutgers University, who co-wrote the so-called broken window theory, said he never advocated a permanent street-clearing operation in black neighborhoods, a strategy he said is guaranteed to fray relations between police and residents.

It's especially troubling, he said, when the forces making those arrests are nearly all white.

"You can have racial profiling in pedestrian stops," Kelling said.

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