Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office last week quietly pressed charges against two PPD officers in a stop-and-frisk case criminal justice experts say may be first of its kind in the nation.

DA Larry Krasner has made steady progress on his campaign promise to hold police accountable for alleged criminal misconduct. In his first nine months in office, his office has filed charges against eight city officers for six alleged on-duty incidents.

Most of the alleged incidents were violent in nature: There was the case against two ex-SEPTA Transit officers over the 2017 beating of an intoxicated man on an El platform in Frankford, which a judge dismissed during a preliminary hearing last month for lack of evidence. Then there’s the ongoing case against a former Kensington officer who was captured on cell phone video body-slamming a handcuffed man. And highest-profile among the eight charged officers, Krasner is pursuing a murder case against former PPD officer Ryan Pownall over the 2017 shooting of David Jones.

While those cases have dominated headlines, the stop-and-frisk charges could have lasting effects on the city’s law enforcement agencies, regardless of the case’s outcome.

Two officers stand accused of making a pedestrian stop-and-frisk, detaining a citizen without cause, and then lying about it on official paperwork. While the police department itself has been sued over its rampant stop-and-frisk practices before, Philly officers have rarely, if ever, been taken to court over the department’s long-sanctioned policy, which critics say amounts to “stop first, justify later.”

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it before,” said David Rudovsky, one of the civil rights attorneys who has sued the department over the practice, about last week’s charges.

Such a case is unprecedented even on the national level, said Thomas Nolan, a Boston-based criminologist and a former senior policy analyst at the Department of Homeland Security.

“This will no doubt prove to be extremely unsettling to the police rank and file,” Nolan said after being briefed on the charges. “Overt acts of criminality — such as robbing a drug dealer or shooting an unarmed fleeing suspect — were always at least potentially prosecutable. But it was almost an article of faith that the police would often engage in stops and create the justification for them after the fact.”

Some experts dismiss the case as a lost cause. Some worry about it exacerbating the highly disputed “Ferguson effect” among city officers. Others call the charges necessary to ensure oversight in a police department entrenched in its own toxic culture. All agree: This is a strange, new ballgame for criminal justice.

‘The citizen was fully compliant’

14th District Officers Matthew Walsh and Marvin Jones stand accused of illegally detaining a man in East Mount Airy last April.

Investigating a civilian complaint filed by the detainee, the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau found video evidence that contradicted the officers’ legal justification for the stop. In official paperwork, the officers alleged that their suspect was “apparently using narcotics.”

Investigators determined that Walsh and Jones fabricated their cause for the frisk, which was that the man wouldn’t remove his hands from his pockets. “The citizen was fully compliant at the time of the stop,” police officials wrote in a press release announcing both officers’ arrest and impending dismissal.

Investigators said the officers detained the man for about 15 minutes, drove him around the block and released him. The detainee later filed a civilian complaint against the officers, triggering the Internal Affairs investigation that would result in their arrest.

The charges approved by Krasner last week include one felony (obstructing the administration of law) as well as three misdemeanor counts (false imprisonment, tampering with records, and official oppression), court records show.

In recent years, allegations made against officers — even those far more violent in nature — have seldom resulted in criminal charges, let alone serious internal discipline. The DA’s office said it was not involved with the police department’s internal investigation prior to reviewing it for possible charging.

“This investigation almost entirely done by Internal Affairs and the Philadelphia Police Department,” said DAO spokesperson Ben Waxman. “After the investigation, they came to us and said ‘Hey, we think you need to take a look at this because we think a crime was committed here.’”

Waxman could not confirm if Krasner had previously asked Internal Affairs to pass  this specific type of case to his office for review.

Regardless, this is not the only case in which the newly minted DA has gone after officers engaged in less overt acts of criminality. Last month, the DA’s office alleged that a 24th District officer falsified paperwork for a 2017 DUI arrest that could have allowed his partner to clock unearned overtime, according to the police department. Police sources said it is highly abnormal for such allegations against PPD officers to result in criminal charges.

Stop-and-frisk policing on trial

Justified or not, the vast majority of police stop-and-frisks do not result in personal injury — as was the case of with the 14th District detainment at the center of this case.

Traditionally, there are three routes for civilians to seek recourse over what they feel is an unjustified stop:

  • File a civilian complaint with the police department (which are overwhelmingly dismissed)
  • Go directly to the DA to seek criminal charges (which are rarely brought)
  • Seek a lawsuit for civil damages (an extremely complicated legal undertaking)

“Litigation is expensive,” Rudovsky said. “You don’t see it unless there’s some physical injury or some kind of trauma.”

14th District Officers Marvin Jones (left) and Matthew Walsh (right) Credit: Philadelphia Police Department

Paul Hetznecker, a civil rights attorney in Philadelphia who has sued individual officers over misconduct, had never heard of a criminal case like this in the city, but he sees it as necessary corrective.

In his mind, officers who perjure themselves in police reports are likely to end up giving perjuring testimony in court. But whether or not a stop-and-frisk leads to a courtroom hearing, the damage is already done in communities of color, he said.

“If these cases aren’t prosecuted then there’s a significant loss of faith in the system — not just because the officers have committed a crime, but more importantly, because it sends a message to all other officers that this is the status quo,” Hetznecker said.

“The pillar of the criminal justice system is the trust in officers, and the sanctioning of false testimony and false reports have continued to destroy this pillar.”

Precedent-setting or ‘overkill’?

Walter Signorelli, a defense attorney in New York who worked with the NYPD for 30 years, says Krasner has built himself “a flimsy case.”

“It seems to warrant a civilian complaint and some instruction for the officers to be a little more careful. To charge them seems like overkill,” he said.

While video evidence against the officers has been made public, Signorelli notes the justification standards for so-called Terry stops always stands in the favor of police. In the case of the Mount Airy officers, he says that the charge is too subjective to hold up.

“How can you say what the guy saw or didn’t see?” Signorelli asked. “[The officers] may be mistaken — but I don’t think that’s a crime. And they let the guy go.”

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark 1968 case, Terry stop-and-frisks are not inherently unconstitutional. But since the 1990s, the practice has evolved into a dragnet tool for major police departments across the country. Its champions argue that such “law and order” policies are crime deterrents, even as urban crime rates have steadily declined nationwide. There is little evidence that widespread pedestrian and vehicle stops play a role in crime reduction. Numerous investigations have found that city officers have violated citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights for stopping them based on their race, not on a reasonable suspicion.

Low-income African American and Latino neighborhoods in Philadelphia and other cities see disproportionate numbers of stops.

Years after the 2010 civil rights lawsuit against the PPD that galvanized public attention over stop-and-frisk policing, the department has made marked improvements — 35 percent fewer pedestrian stops occurred in 2016 than the year prior. Still, Rudovsky contended that an unacceptable quarter of stops (upwards of 100 per day, citywide) did not involve unreasonable suspicion that same year.

Peter Moskos, a criminology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former Baltimore police officer, also reviewed Krasner’s stop-and-frisk case at a reporter’s request. He said that the case likely wouldn’t go anywhere in a city where officers routinely walk free — and even return to the force — after far more heinous allegations go before a jury.

He also said, regardless of outcome, the case could have a negative effect within the department. He cited Baltimore, where homicides have skyrocketed in the wake of national policing scandals and residents have bemoaned a thinner police presence in high-crime sections of the city.

“If they’re [filing criminal charges] carefully and picking off the bad cops, that’s one thing,” Moskos said. “But if you start sending a message to well-intentioned cops who do good police work, that’s dangerous.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...