Philadelphia has a lot of work to do when it comes to racial equality, but there may be some positive change on the horizon.

Recent court documents, filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania outlined the Police Department’s efforts and recent policy changes aimed at addressing some critical issues in the criminal justice system.

Why These Changes are Happening Now

It should come as no surprise that these initiatives are in response to a class action regarding pedestrian stops and frisks conducted by the Philadelphia Police Department(PPD).

The lawsuit, which is being handled by Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg as well as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has shined a light on how PPD officers, in many cases, illegally detained thousands of citizens based on their race or ethnicity.

Reducing Stop & Frisk

The lawsuit forced the PPD to take a long, hard, look at many of its procedures, including the unconstitutional practice of “stop and frisk.” The result has been a collaboration that drastically reduced the total number of pedestrian stops that are conducted without reasonable suspicion. This has led to additional training on what constitutes reasonable suspicion and how to properly document it on 75-48A forms.

Other Philadelphia Police Reforms

Importantly, the PPD also enacted a progressive system to discipline officers for noncompliance, track “repeat offenders,” and impose penalties on officers. The fact that the PPD included an enforcement provision is significant because while as admirable as policy changes are, they are pretty ineffective without consequences.

As great as disciplining officers for infractions is, the PPD and the City recognize the need to go further to create meaningful change. Therefore, outside of the specific ‘stop and frisk’ concerns raised in the lawsuit; other reforms are currently underway.

Many of these are aimed towards ensuring equal justice for all and include measures like accountability reforms, efforts to increase transparency, establishing more police oversite, and violence de-escalation programs. Perhaps most notable, and more in line with the inherent racial disparity in policing, the PPD has made substantial changes to their search warrant procedure and execution, particularly the controversial use of no-knock warrants.

Search & Arrest Warrant Improvements

Effective September 1, 2020, the PPD amended its search and arrest warrant policies to reflect the need to always include any information that would contradict a person’s involvement in a crime. Prior to this, warrants only needed to highlight the reasons that support probable cause, and as you may suspect, arguments pertaining to criminal behavior can be artificially strengthened by omitting key factors.

However, now that all reasonable exculpatory information must be included in the affidavits, judges will get a broader picture of the evidence and fewer erroneous warrants should result.

Prohibiting No-Knock Warrants

Obviously making the warrant application process more fair-minded is a step in the right direction, but servicing warrants has long been a point of contention in communities of color. This fact has become even more evident since the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot multiple times by Louisville police who burst into her home during a drug raid gone wrong.

With the public outcry following Ms. Taylor’s death and subsequent demonstrations after the decision not to file criminal charges against the officers involved, the PPD has decided to completely prohibit no-knock warrants. And while there is case law that supports an exception to the “knock” requirement when serving a warrant, the Police Commissioner has approved this change.

Are These Changes Enough?

The Philadelphia Police Department has a long history of racial profiling, and it remains to be seen if these measures will make a dent in the wall of distrust present in our communities of color. However, it is hopeful to see a good faith collaboration between officers and those they have sworn to protect. These changes could be a great first step in recognizing and correcting the systemic racial inequities we all see in the justice system.

If you or a loved one have been served with a warrant or charged with a crime in the Philadelphia area, it’s always best to consult an experienced, local defense lawyer. Attorney Michael Fienman of Fienman Defense knows what you’re dealing with, and how to help. Let him explain your rights and how to resolve the issue in the best way possible.

Call (215) 839-9529 for a free and confidential consultation 24/7.

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