Philly police roll back COVID freeze, resume arrests for burglaries, theft and other offenses

Warmer weather and a spike in some crimes were cited as reasons for the change.

Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

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Philadelphia may still be shut down, but the police are slowly going back to business as usual.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw is easing the department’s COVID-19 emergency protocols that went into effect in March.

In a memo sent out Friday, Outlaw instructs officers to resume making on-site arrests for a range of offenses, including burglary, retail theft, and stolen vehicles. The order also allows officers to make arrests for narcotics sales again, with special approval.

Explaining the policy reversal, Outlaw specifies several factors, namely: “the approach of consistently warmer weather, an increase in retail thefts…and an increase in burglaries.”

Six weeks ago, Outlaw changed the arrest procedure for a slew of nonviolent offenses — including all narcotics activity. The list also included theft, burglary, prostitution, stolen automobiles, vandalism, and certain economic crimes.

Instead of detaining suspects, police were instructed to process paperwork for the charges and seek an arrest warrant at a later date. The original policy stated individuals could still be held for arrest for these offenses “if an officer believes that releasing the offender would pose a threat to public safety.”

The policy was meant to reduce contact among police and the public as the coronavirus spread throughout the city, officials said. But some fear it had an emboldening effect. Business owners reported a rash of break-ins and shoplifting offenses. Commercial burglaries are up 25% over this time last year, while retail thefts are up 36%, city crime data shows.

Under the new policy, street-level arrests for illegal drug sales and distribution may also resume, with permission from division supervisors and narcotics commanders. Cases solely for drug possession will not be processed by the department, Outlaw wrote.

More changes to the COVID-19 protocols could be en route as the pandemic shifts, she added:

“We will continue to review our policies on a perpetual basis, and we will keep our members informed of any revisions and amendments.”

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