City retracts, apologizes for ‘fear-mongering’ request from Philly police to community groups

The memo, which officials admitted was “misleading,” asked residents to sign off on enforcement of minor offenses like spitting and blocking the sidewalk.

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Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and the Philadelphia Police Department are retracting a memo sent to community groups urging residents to hastily sign legal documents in support of certain “quality of life” policing practices.

Philadelphia officials also formally apologized for the note, admitting it made an “untrue and misleading” claim. Sent out Friday with a Monday deadline, it asked residents to commit to their support for enforcing minor offenses such as public spitting, obstructing sidewalks, and smoking marijuana in public.

In response to Billy Penn’s questioning, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and City Solicitor Dianna Cortes on Saturday issued a joint statement calling it a failed attempt to gather community feedback.

“The way in which that feedback was solicited was inappropriate and misconstrued the purpose of the request,” Cortes and Outlaw wrote. “In no way was the intent to scare community members into hastily providing affidavits … We, as well as the mayor and managing director, strongly condemn any such fear-mongering.”

Behind the memo is a new legal debate in the 10-year-old case seeking to reform so-called “stop and frisk” actions in Philadelphia.

The “Bailey case,” as it’s known, is a federal class action lawsuit filed in 2010 by the ACLU and civil rights firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg that alleged racial bias in policing. For nearly a decade, the city has been engaging in court-monitored reforms, instituting new training and collecting data on pedestrian and vehicle stops.

Last summer, the police department admitted for the first time that racial bias was evident.

Black Philadelphians comprise a disproportionate number of stops in Philadelphia. Although the overall count dropped more than 90% between 2014 and 2020, the share of stops targeting Black pedestrians increased, according to a 6ABC analysis of police data published last year.

In March, the city and the ACLU came to a partial agreement on new reforms in the case — including using police body cams to evaluate bias. But “quality of life” policing remained an issue of contention, court records show.

Stopping such enforcement when reasonable suspicion is present “would deprive PPD of a valuable crime-fighting tool at a time when Philadelphia’s homicide rates have never been higher, and when community members have been increasingly scared for their own safety and the safety of their families,” the city wrote in a March response in the case.

Data shows stop and frisk searches rarely yield firearms, which the ACLU noted when responding to the city’s claim in court.

“[T]here is nothing even close to a causative relationship between [quality of life] stops and shootings in Philadelphia,” attorneys Kairys and Rudovsky wrote. “The notion that requiring an officer, for example, to instruct a civilian to put away an open liquor container, stop littering, or cease annoying behavior before engaging in a forceful stop will increase the murder rate in Philadelphia defies empirical data and common sense.”

The note sent Friday to community groups by PPD Community Relations Officer Juan Delgago was intended to drum up documents showing support of continued quality of life enforcement.

Delgado claimed the lawsuit was “pressuring the police department to cease enforcing certain quality-of-life offenses,” a claim officials later admitted was untrue.

Residents and community groups in Philadelphia do request enforcement of these offenses — most of which are not criminal, and result in police issuing tickets, at worst. The plaintiffs in the Bailey case do not seek to stop officers from responding to quality of life complaints, but rather come to an agreement about how they are handled.

The police department’s request did not seek community feedback so much as blind support. The fill-in-the-blank affidavit provided by the department asked for sign-off on enforcement against public urination, panhandling, marijuana possession, open liquor containers, obstructing sidewalks, littering, spitting and gambling.

City Councilmember Helen Gym said the memo undermines years of work the city has spent decriminalizing lower-level offenses, such as marijuana possession, that disproportionately impact Black and Latino residents.

“It’s staggeringly ignorant of the law — and it’s inflaming tensions right now at a time when the city is trying to call for peace and a better sense of public trust as we are amid this gun violence crisis,” Gym said Saturday.

Commissioner Outlaw and Solicitor Cortes said any affidavits submitted to the department will not be used in court, as the department works on “a more productive way” to get community input.

They also apologized to people who have been targeted by stop-and-frisk policing practices.

“We understand that some members of communities of color in Philadelphia who have suffered their entire lives under systemic racism are offended by this messaging,” the officials said. “To them, again, we humbly apologize…We vow to do better.”

David Rudosky, a civil rights attorney who filed the Bailey case, declined to comment.


Full statement from City Solicitor Diana Cortes and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw

“We apologize and immediately retract communications in the past week from police regarding enforcement of quality of life offenses in Philadelphia communities. The intent of the Police Department was to assist the Law Department in documenting feedback from community members who previously expressed support for continued enforcement. This would allow their perspectives to be presented to the court in the ongoing Bailey litigation. However, the way in which that feedback was solicited was inappropriate and misconstrued the purpose of the request. To be clear – in no way was the intent to scare community members into hastily providing affidavits for fear of negatively impacting the case. We-as well as the mayor and managing director-strongly condemn any such fear-mongering.

“As such, any declarations or testimonials on this issue gathered from this outreach will not be presented to the court at this time. We will work with plaintiff’s counsel to determine a more thoughtful and appropriate method to solicit community input on this issue.

“We understand that some members of communities of color in Philadelphia who have suffered their entire lives under systemic racism are offended by this messaging. To them, again, we humbly apologize. As the mayor said Friday in his remarks in advance of the Chauvin trial verdict, we are committed to making sure that we learn from our own mistakes, demonstrate accountability, and hold ourselves to a higher standard. We failed here. We vow to do better.”