Jamel Workman doesn’t like his car interior hot — so he got the windows of his Lincoln MKZ tinted, as dark as he could while still abiding by Pennsylvania law.
But this minor luxury carries a heavy price when the Delaware County resident commutes to Contenders, the stylish, boxing-themed West Philadelphia barbershop he owns. Workman, 38, said he has been stopped by police at least seven times along that drive, searched two or three times, and ticketed twice, all within the last year.
“I went and fought the tint ticket, and I beat it,” he said, providing copies of the tickets he keeps in his glove box for the next police encounter. He believes the searches weren’t about the tint. “They’re hoping to find something else,” he said. Once, an officer demanded: “ ‘Where are the guns? We want the guns.’ I was just like, ‘There are no guns in here!’ ”
To Workman, there’s only one reason for all these stops: “They’re profiling,” he said. “They know this is a black guy here.”
Although Philadelphia police and civil rights lawyers have been monitoring pedestrian stops and frisks since 2011 — when they entered into a consent decree after a federal lawsuit over stark racial disparities — they have not studied vehicle stops as closely. (Among other reasons, they are more complicated to track than pedestrian stops, and usually some cause is listed for the initial stop — tinted windows, for instance.)
This year, though, police data show a dramatic increase in vehicle stops. Through August, police had stopped more than 10,000 additional drivers each month compared with the first eight months of 2018.
And stops of black drivers accounted for the bulk of that increase: For the first half of the year, black drivers accounted for 74% of all vehicle stops and 80% of searches. Whereas the vehicle search rate from 2014 to 2016 was about equal across races, this year, black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as white ones.
At the same time, the “hit rate” — the rate at which searches turn up contraband — declined. When cars driven by black or Latino drivers were searched, the hit rate was just 12% in 2019, compared with 38% in 2014, according to online data published by the Philadelphia police.
The trends were identified by lawyer Michael Mellon of the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The office is advocating for John Berry, who was stopped for a traffic violation in the 14th District, where black drivers who are stopped are 3½ times more likely to be searched than white ones. In that racially diverse district — which encompasses parts of Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and West Oak Lane — the rise in vehicle stops this year has been even steeper; the public defenders documented the trend to support a subpoena for officer records to show a pattern of racial profiling.
But David Rudovsky, one of the civil rights lawyers charged with monitoring the consent decree on stops, said the trend has far broader implications.
It appears, he said, that “there’s no legitimate explanation for this other than targeting black drivers. … With this recent data, we’ve got to reevaluate whether or not we should now be looking at car stops again.”
That would complicate what has already been halting progress on reducing unlawful pedestrian stops and searches.
Before the lawsuit was filed in 2010, 40% of stops were made without reasonable suspicion, according to the plaintiff’s analysis; in the first half of 2018, just 16% were. But that still adds up to thousands of Philadelphians being stopped illegally each year. And, as of 2018, 30% of searches of pedestrians were conducted with no legal justification.
The Police Department recently agreed to institute a disciplinary process for reviewing the conduct of officers who repeatedly make stops without any reported cause, and reviewing sergeants who don’t address such behavior.
“We’ve been pushing for this oversight and discipline for a number of years,” Rudovsky said. “Once the officers — in particular the supervisors — are sanctioned, I think you’re going to get more compliance.”
A Philadelphia police spokesperson, Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, said in an email that he could not comment on the Defender Association’s findings regarding the rise in vehicle stops, because he did not have the report. “The Police Department remains highly concerned with the propriety, legal sufficiency, and objective application of all pedestrian and vehicle investigations,” he said.
Kinebrew said police had received additional training over the summer in how to handle stops. He said the training, rather than focusing on reducing unnecessary stops, was “largely on proper documentation on departmental forms … as well as the importance of extending courtesy and respect.”
Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney — who has pledged to curb racial disparities in policing — said the administration’s “preliminary view” is that they’ve made progress but need to do more.
“The administration is committed to that challenging work and it will certainly be on the next commissioner’s priority list,” Dunn said in an email. Richard Ross resigned as police commissioner Aug. 20; Christine M. Coulter was appointed to an interim role.
Amy Shoemaker, a data scientist in the Stanford Computational Policy Lab and one of the creators of the Stanford Open Policing Project, said an analysis of Philadelphia police data since 2014, comparing search and hit rates across races, shows that the racial disparities are not merely coincidental.
“It’s very clear that black and Hispanic drivers are subject to lower standards of evidence,” she said. “Police require less suspicion to search black and Hispanic drivers than whites.”