Philly’s coronavirus response

Philly police to halt narcotics arrests, other charges during COVID outbreak

Officers can make exceptions if they think someone would “pose a threat” to public safety.

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Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has instructed the department to begin delaying arrests for a slew of low-level criminal offenses — including all narcotics activity.

The unprecedented move comes as the city takes emergency measures to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus through the region.

An internal memo obtained by Billy Penn and WHYY states that crimes including theft, burglary, prostitution, stolen automobiles, vandalism, and certain economic crimes will no longer automatically result in detention. Police will also temporarily stop enforcing bench warrants to individuals who fail to show up for court.

Effective Tuesday, arrests for these offenses will instead be “effectuated via arrest warrant,” according to Outlaw’s memo.

That means officers may detain and identify a suspect in order to gather evidence, but the alleged offender will then be released. Officers will submit paperwork for the charges and, if approved by the city’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Larry Krasner, an arrest warrant will be issued at a later date — presumably once the COVID-19 outbreak is under control.

Addressing concerns about law and order, Outlaw told press that the city was not “turning a blind eye to crime.”

“This is similar to the ‘summons process’ that is utilized in many other counties throughout the Commonwealth,” Outlaw said. “To reiterate, criminal offenders will be held accountable for the crimes they commit,” she said.

Although overall crime levels in Philadelphia are lower than in decades past, the changes come amid an upswing. The homicide rate is up 23% compared to the same day last year, with all types of violent crime and property crime up 17% compared to the same week in 2019.

There is room in the new policy for exceptional circumstances.

“If an officer believes that releasing the offender would pose a threat to public safety, the officer will notify a supervisor, who will review the totality of the circumstances and utilize discretion, in the interest of public safety, in determining the appropriate course of action,” Outlaw wrote in the memo.

A police spokesperson confirmed the authenticity of the PPD’s internal memo on Tuesday. The department later sent an official statement announcing the changes.

“Our mission is to protect and promote the health and safety of our officers and the community we serve to the best of our ability while continuing to discharge every aspect of our core duties,” Commissioner Outlaw wrote in the statement.

Although city officials said Monday that discussions of the policy had begun earlier, the PPD memo came a day after DA Krasner called for police to revise their arrest policies for low-level offenses, citing public health concerns.

Krasner praised the change in arrest policies on Tuesday.

“It’s clear to me that the police commissioner is trying to be thoughtful and creative as we move into uncharted territory,” he said, in a phone interview. “We commend her for putting the safety of the public’s health first.”

The DA also urged police officers to exercise diligence in gathering contact info for offenders, victims, and witnesses to aid in the future execution and prosecution of what could amount to “thousands” of deferred warrants after the pandemic.

“We as prosecutors will be doing a lot of things later,” he said, adding that his office planned to encourage defendants to voluntarily surrender in exchange for more favorable consideration.

FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby, often critical of “soft on crime” measures, released a statement in support of the new policy.

“The directive was released to keep officers safe during this public-health crisis,” he said. “Meanwhile, violent offenders will be arrested and processed with the guidance of a police supervisor.”

Outlaw’s new order also rolls out a slew of other changes to departmental protocol.

All plainclothes officers will be reassigned to uniformed patrol duties, according to the memo. The department’s aggressively-used “Live Stop” program for impounding vehicles will also be suspended until further notice.

Outlaw instructed officers on best practices for engaging with the public as the highly contagious virus spreads throughout the region. These practices include maintaining a 6-foot distance during interactions and wearing nitrile gloves whenever possible.

“Please remain vigilant, as your safety and that of your family is paramount,” Outlaw wrote.

As of Tuesday afternoon, health officials had confirmed 96 cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, including 18 in Philadelphia. City officials have declined to confirm whether any police, assistant district attorneys, or other municipal staff are thought to have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Want some more? Explore other Philly’s coronavirus response stories.

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