Allegheny County DA still silent on shooting of black man on his front porch by Pittsburgh police

By Emilia Beuger and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Will Christopher Thompkins’ killing be forgotten?

Thompkins and his ex-wife, Brenda, awoke around 4 a.m. on January 22 to someone standing beside their bed in their home near the eastern border of Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood. As the intruder fled the room, Thompkins asked for Brenda’s pistol. He went downstairs to protect his mother who was sleeping on the first floor. “He was just saying, ‘My mom, my mom,’” Brenda Thompkins told TribLive. “That’s all he was worrying about.” As he went down the stairs, Brenda called 911 and went to a roof behind the house. She surmised that an alarm company may have called the police sooner, however, because when Thompkins reached his front porch, police were waiting for him.

And they killed him.

Thompkins was shot dead that morning through the front door of his home by two Zone 5 police officers. Brenda heard the two gunshots from the roof. Later, as police escorted her downstairs, she saw Thompkins’ body covered by a blanket on the stairs. The man who had broken into their house, Juan Brian Jeter-Clark, was handcuffed and sitting on the couch. Thompkins was pronounced dead at 4:08 a.m. “They shot the wrong guy,” Brenda told reporters.

She was right. We know that somehow in the break-in’s aftermath, those officers mistook a man defending his home and family for a burglar.

What we don’t know is how that happened — and how it might be prevented in the future.

As is typical in Pittsburgh police shootings, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, lead by Stephen A. Zappala, took charge of investigating what happened. The two officers involved in the shooting — whose names have not been released by any public official — were placed on a 10-day administrative leave before they went back to their regular beats.

It’s been radio silence since then. As we approach the eight month anniversary of the shooting, it’s worth wondering why the investigation has taken so long, and why there seems to be little public push to either hold these officers accountable or explain why they should be let off the hook for killing a man.

Media coverage and errant public statements may explain some of the stall. An article published by TribLive on January 22, 2017, described how Thompkins had “run afoul of the law” years before he purchased the house he would later be killed in. KDKA implied he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to carry a firearm — as if that somehow justified his killing by police. Mayor Peduto even felt it was necessary to say, “Mr. Thompkins obviously had some issues in the past,” during a statement he made after meeting with the family. Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, chided the coverage: “I think it’s tragic that the media, and to some extent others, have quietly excused this because the guy had a pretty bad criminal record.”

A second explanation is more troubling: As the months roll past, it’s possible that the investigation of Christopher Thompkins’ shooting is being slow-walked by the District Attorney’s Office in the hopes that it’ll be forgotten. “[If the] officers returned to duty and are back on the force, you can almost conclude that the investigation is done,” said Donald Tibbs, a Drexel University law professor. Yet the investigation drags on nonetheless.

In the meantime, both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office have said nothing substantive about the shooting, instead invoking silence based on an “ongoing investigation.” While a Right To Know Law request from ACLU-PA has turned up a vague incident report and the name of the responding Zone 5 officers — Joshua Dengler and Richard Cerrillos — not much else is available to the public. That includes body camera footage from the incident, and an affidavit of probable cause, both of which are being withheld because they are “investigative in nature.”

“I don’t know of any legal rules or rulings that say that district attorneys must withhold information from the public,” Tibbs said. So then it is a question of their policy and practices. “District attorneys have a lot of discretionary power,” he went on.

Pittinger said it was “very unusual for an incident like this to be that quiet.” And while she and Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, acknowledged that the shooting may have been an accident, they question why the public has been left in the dark.

Fisher places responsibility for the delayed and opaque process squarely on the district attorney’s office.

“I think they hold too much power, especially in Allegheny County,” she said. “There is no accountability.”

But there’s a possibility that Stephen Zappala could prove her wrong — by bringing this investigation to a close, and making public not only the affidavit of probable cause from the incident but the body camera footage as well.

Only then, Christopher Thompkins’ killing might not be forgotten.

How much is that public record worth to you?

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A new Pennsylvania bill would make body camera video a tool for prosecutors — not the public. Photo via Flickr user North Charleston.

Pennsylvania is swiftly pushing forward a very bad bill — Senate Bill 560 — that will seriously hamper civilians’ ability to obtain footage from police body-worn cameras. The Appeal has addressed body camera issues before (this week, even), but SB560 is quickly progressing. A vote could happen in Harrisburg as soon as next week. So we’re gonna address it again.

Body cameras have been widely available to the policing market since about 2007. Some departments started using them early, such as the BART Police Department after Oscar Grant’s killing in 2009. But a groundswell of interest didn’t emerge until August 2014.

When white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed a black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Wilson’s story — what he said about why he was justified in killing Brown — was questionable. Protests erupted nationwide. You know the story.

Among many other conversations about policing and race that emerged in the wake of that shooting, one focused on body cameras. There was, among many who paid attention, a consensus that body camera video would have provided an unbiased perspective in Ferguson that was sorely lacking. Both police and civilians seemed to concur: If body camera footage could tell the real story — and be shown to the public — then there would be less of a question about what happened between Wilson and Brown. In general, there would be less testilying by cops. There would be fewer false reports of police misconduct. It would be a win for everyone.

And indeed, that’s where things went: Thousands of police representatives began pushing their leaders to purchase body cameras, and so did civilians. The body camera market expanded exponentially. New companies were founded, and old police companies rushed to get into the business. Tens of millions in taxpayer dollars were made available in federal funding for body cameras. The market exploded — in large part because both police and civilians seemed to agree that body camera footage could hold both cops and civilians accountable.

Police leaders were, in fact, at the forefront of this movement toward transparency through police body cameras.

“A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its offcers are a matter of public record,” wrote Chuck Wexler, in a pioneering 2014 document by the Police Executive Research Forum that encouraged best practices for body camera use. Wexler continued: “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request — not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”

Fast forward to now. Pennsylvania’s legislature is working to walk back one of the main premises that made body cameras agreeable to both civilians and police in the first place: their accessibility to the public.

Senate Bill 560 — which I implore you to read — will do a number of things that run counter to basic principles of transparency. It will insure that body camera video falls outside the state’s Right To Know Law, for one thing — meaning that the rules allowing civilians to obtain policies, meeting minutes, and even internal emails sent to and from government employees, will not apply to video produced by police.

SB560 won’t let any civilian request body camera video that’s more than 60 days old.

If a request is denied — for reasons as vague as the video “contains potential evidence” — it will cost civilians $125 just to appeal the decision. And of course there’s no guarantee that they’ll succeed in getting the video after the appeal.

Pennsylvania is not alone in pushing a transparency-killing law to limit access to body camera video. In September last year, North Carolina passed into law a similarly terrible bill.

But we don’t need to follow in that state’s footsteps.

If Darren Wilson had been wearing a body camera in 2014 — and if Missouri’s laws were the same as what Pennsylvania’s legislature hopes to pass — it’s unlikely that the video from his interaction with Michael Brown would have been available to the public. Protests would have erupted. The cameras would have been useless.

Having such a law would, indeed, make body cameras essentially useless for civilians. They would instead be tools for cops and district attorneys to put more people behind bars.

That’s not what anyone protesting in Ferguson wanted in 2014, and it’s not what anyone still paying attention wants today.

SB560 is a bad bill that should vanish. Stay tuned to aclupa.org to find out how you can help make that happen.

PLUG

(An ACLU-PA criminal justice event you should know about.)

Join us in Philadelphia to #DECARCERATEDA.

  • ACLU-PA: “District Attorney Candidate Forum — Philly DA for the People”

Philly needs a district attorney who will bring a new vision for justice. Come hear what the candidates running to be the next Philadelphia district attorney have to say about ending cash bail, bringing transparency and accountability to the office, protecting our immigrant communities, and more.

WHEN: Tuesday, April 18, 6 p.m. — 8 p.m. (Event will start promptly at 6 p.m.)
WHERE: Arch Street United Methodist Church, 55 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA 19107

ASL interpreter and Spanish-language interpreter will be provided.

Free child care will be available.

Sponsored by the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, a diverse set of groups representing tens of thousands of Philadelphia voters and communities. This coalition is working to hold all the district attorney candidates accountable to their communities’ fundamental need for justice and respect. More about the coalition and its platform is available here: www.phillydaforthepeople.org

EXCERPTS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

How effective was a $3.5 million grant to lessen Philly’s incarceration problem? Photo via The Inquirer.

  • The Inquirer: Has a bold reform plan helped to shrink Philly’s prison population?

“The number of inmates has fallen nearly 12 percent, from 7,486 last April to 6,603 as of last month, according to data released Wednesday by the Managing Director’s Office. The prison population numbered as many as 8,301 as recently as early 2015. The dropoff has earned praise from even hardened critics of the various arms of the local justice system. This has been no small task. Philadelphia has the highest per-capita incarceration rate of the 10 largest cities in the nation. About 30 percent of those sitting behind bars are awaiting trial.”

  • Daily News: “Locked up for being poor: Can next Philly DA fix the bail mess?”

“With seven of the eight DA candidates facing off in a May 16 Democratic primary, three of those candidates — Joe Kahn, Lawrence Krasner, and Michael Untermeyer — have promised to work to completely eliminate cash bail in the city, and most of the other candidates support lesser varieties of bail reform, such as dropping the practice for lower-level non-violent crimes. To many advocates of criminal justice reform, the move seems like a no-brainer. For one thing, it would save Philadelphia taxpayers millions of dollars; officials say that as many of half of the 6,600 people now locked up in the city’s jails are there because they’re awaiting trial and unable to afford cash bail. In many cases, advocates say, the inmates could gain their freedom for as little as $500 or less — but in the city with America’s highest rate of deep poverty, the figure might as well be a million dollars. ‘It’s just such an obvious thing — the question of whether someone is a danger to the community has nothing to do with how much money they have,’ said Patrick J. Egan, a partner in the Fox Rothschild law firm who moderated a Philadelphia forum last week on ending cash bail. ‘Poor folks stay in jail and rich folks don’t.’”

  • New York Times: “‘It Did Not Stick’: The First Federal Effort to Curb Police Abuse”

“‘Pittsburgh could very well have been stuck in the ’60s with no computers if it hadn’t had a consent decree,’ he said. The Justice Department had a list of demands — for instance, that every passenger’s race and sex be recorded during traffic stops. Chief McNeilly protested, questioning the practicality and legality of such a requirement. In the end, only the driver’s information was tracked. The Justice Department also required an ‘early warning system,’ opposed by the union, that would flag officers prone to using force. ‘Bob McNeilly was like a test pilot in the Mercury flight program,’ said Chuck Wexler, the president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a group of law enforcement professionals. ‘No one knew what an “early warning system” was, how to build it or what to measure.’”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

REVEALED: Pittsburgh unveils its long-hidden body camera policies. They’re ‘not very good’

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

When two national policy organizations surveyed police body camera regulations in cities all over the country last year, they discovered that Pittsburgh was hiding something: it’s body camera policies.

Departments in 46 other cities made their policies public. Pittsburgh was one of only two major cities in the country to keep them secret.

It’s no wonder why.

Responding to a Pennsylvania Right-To-Know-Law request, Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police publicly released its body camera policies for the first time to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on April 3. (It had previously only released a “synopsis.”) Those policies were among the least transparent in the nation. And despite implementing its policies in July 2014, Pittsburgh’s are still under “active, internal review.”

“We’ve looked at a lot of these,” said Harlan Yu, of Upturn, one of the two groups who evaluated policies nationwide. “To put it simply, Pittsburgh’s policies are not very good.”

Sound body camera rules are important. They can mean the difference between a police department that holds its officers accountable — as the Police Executive Research Foundation has suggested they should — and one that doesn’t. Sound rules outline whether body camera footage can be reasonably obtained by the public, for example. Unsound rules don’t.   

The Body Worn Camera Policy Scorecard is a website created by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington D.C., and digital design company, Upturn. It is a first-of-its-kind assessment determining whether specific police departments have written clear rules about how police officers use body cameras.

The BWC Scorecard — whose assessors took guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union to evaluate policies — is simplified into eight categories. They are:

  • Whether the police department makes its policy easily accessible;
  • Whether it limits an officer’s discretion about when to record;
  • Whether it addresses personal privacy concerns;
  • Whether it prohibits officers from viewing body camera footage before they write most police reports;
  • Whether it limits retention — i.e., how long footage should be kept;  
  • Whether it protects footage against tampering and misuse;
  • Whether it makes footage available to individuals filing complaints;
  • Whether it limits use of biometric technologies such as facial recognition to be used with body camera footage.

The BWC Scorecard doesn’t judge the policies themselves; rather, it tracks whether the policies are clearly outlined. It gives a checkmark in a green box for an up-to-date policy; a circle in a yellow box for an outdated policy; and an X in a red box for an unavailable policy.

Of those eight categories, Pittsburgh received a green box rating in only one category: retention. “Members are advised, per this regulation, that all recordings collected by the BWC equipment which is not regulated by a regular retention schedule will be purged no later than 90 days from the date of the last recording,” the policy reads.

In two other categories — officer discretion, and footage misuse — Pittsburgh’s policies were outdated, say Miranda Bogen and Harlan Yu, of Upturn, who helped to evaluate policies nationwide for the BWC Scorecard.

For officer discretion, Pittsburgh’s policy states that officers should record at stops, in vehicle pursuit, and at major crime scenes. But it outlines no repercussions if an officer fails to record.

With footage misuse, Pittsburgh’s policy states that officers should not destroy body camera footage “except for approved annotation in accordance with the training and capabilities of the BWC system,” but it outlines no specific rules for logging footage.

In the other five categories, Pittsburgh’s policies received a big X.

“We already knew that Pittsburgh was keeping its full body camera policy hidden from the public,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Now we know why: It is out of date, and sorely lacking. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police needs to change this, and to write body camera policies that are clear and current.”

Have a look at Pittsburgh’s body camera policy here:



Pittsburgh BWC Policy (Text)

Hiding cops who kill

In response to protests in Pennsylvania and around the country to hold police accountable, Pennsylvania’s state legislature has responded by trying to expand the role of secrecy in government. To vote NO on House Bill 27, click this link. Photo via Thomas Hawk.

By Andy Hoover, Communications Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

A social justice movement knows that it is having an impact when it faces backlash. And so it is with the movement for black lives and the response it’s getting from the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

As people from communities around the state and around the country have called for fairer treatment from the police and more transparency in how police operate, our state legislature is maneuvering to use state law to withhold as much information as possible from the public.

Next week, the state House of Representatives is prepared to vote on legislation to hide the identities of police officers who kill or seriously injure someone. Public officials could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for violating the gag order.

Ostensibly, this public blackout would last 30 days. But the bill also prohibits releasing an officer’s name if doing so “can reasonably be expected to create a risk of harm to the person or property” of the officer or his family. In practice, the gag order will go on indefinitely. What public official would risk it otherwise, especially with the threat of criminal charges?

The supporters argue “safety,” as they always do when they want to undermine civil liberties. And yet they cannot point to a single documented case in which the safety of an officer who used force was under credible threat of harm.

In November, Governor Wolf vetoed a similar bill, and in his veto statement, he said, “Government works best when trust and openness exist between citizens and their government. I cannot agree to sign this bill, because it will enshrine into law a policy to withhold important information from the public.”

We agree. Police officers are public employees with extraordinary powers. They have the power to deprive people of their liberty and even to deprive people of their lives. With that power comes the expectation that they will operate with openness for the public to see.

We are not alone in that opinion. Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has said that police officers cannot shoot someone and have an expectation to remain anonymous. Open government advocate Terry Mutchler, the former head of the Office of Open Records, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “This type of legislation, while very well intended, which I understand coming from a long family of cops, collides with open government. Government must be open and transparent no matter how difficult that may seem at times.”

In urging Wolf to veto last year, state Representative Jordan Harris, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, wrote, “(T)his bill would cast a cloak of secrecy around police officers at a time when the public most demands information. This is not how you rebuild community-police relationships.”

Last year, the bill even received national attention, including from David Simon, creator of “The Wire.”

And now the bill is back. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has created an action for you to contact your state representative to tell them to vote NO on House Bill 27. The action is available at this link.

There is a lot of gloomy talk these days about where we are headed as a country. This bill and others like it that hide information about police practices from the public create an environment in which police are hidden and unaccountable. Be assured that the ACLU of Pennsylvania will do whatever is necessary to stop it.

IN OTHER NEWS

What happens when cops lie? Photo via Vice.

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

  • From Vice: “Why Cops Don’t Get Charged with Crimes When They Lie”

“According to Professor Yaroshefsky, the DA’s implicit concession that its office fails to search out evidence favorable to defendants in police files could leave it vulnerable to a federal lawsuit down the line. But Kline, in a statement, shifted the burden to the police department, saying they all ‘must rely on the department and on other sources to identify appropriate cases for review. We note that the premise of your inquiry appears to be that all internal police discipline is automatically Brady material. The expert you quote does not say that, and we do not believe it is the law.’ Meanwhile, Philly DA Seth Williams is on his way out, and Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights attorney, is hoping to succeed him with a campaign premised on rooting out some of the police misconduct local prosecutors have long countenanced. ‘I’ve seen first hand how dirty they can get,’ Thompson said in his Internal Affairs complaint. ‘Even if they don’t like the tone of your voice they are not God.’”

  • From PennLive: “Immigration agents flood Allison Hill in Harrisburg”

“The ICE agents do not partner with police or even notify police of their raids, Olivera said. Instead, police have found out about the series of daily raids, some starting as early as 5 a.m., from residents. ‘Several people have been taken into custody,’ Olivera said. ‘Families have been broken up.’ The organization, Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, or MILPA, is planning a 6 p.m. news conference Monday about the raids, said Harrisburg City Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels. The event will be at the St. Francis Assisi Church in Harrisburg. The raids have caused such fear in certain pockets of Allison Hill that residents are afraid to go to the corner store, Olivera said. Some parents are reluctant to drop their children off at school for fear of getting stopped, said Daniels, who is an immigration attorney. Instead, the children are missing classes. ‘It’s really bad,’ Daniels said. ‘They don’t just stop the person they’re looking for. They hassle everyone who’s around.’”

“The four kitchen employees were arrested as part of a recent surge in Immigration & Customs Enforcement activity, said Stephen Converse, the attorney representing them. The men are all in their mid- to late 20s and are from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Converse declined to provide his clients’ names, but he said none has a criminal record. Their only crimes, he said, are being undocumented immigrants.”

  • From The Marshall Project: “The Seismic Change in Police Interrogations: A major player in law enforcement says it will no longer use a method linked to false confessions.”

“The technique was first introduced in the 1940s and 50s by polygraph expert John Reid, who intended it to be a modern-era reform — replacing the beatings that police frequently used to elicit information. His tactics soon became dogma in police departments and were considered so successful in garnering confessions that, in its famous 1966 Miranda decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited it as a reason why suspects must be warned of their right against self-incrimination.But the advent of DNA evidence and advocacy by the Innocence Project in the 1990s showed that about one-third of exonerations involve confessions, once believed to be an absolute sign of guilt. Academics have theories why someone would falsely confess to a crime, including having a mental disability, being interviewed without a lawyer or parent in the room, or suffering through hours or days in jail before questioning.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Pennsylvania’s Proposed Blue Lives Matter Law is Redundant, Unnecessary

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

(13th and Locust, Philadelphia, PA. October 21, 2014, credit: Ben Bowens)

Pennsylvania could soon have its own Blue Lives Matter law.

Taking cues from Louisiana — which became the first state in the country to pass legislation deeming law enforcement officers a protected class — Pa. Representative Frank Burns (D-Cambria) introduced legislation July 13 to do the same in the Keystone State.

“I respect the difficult job police and corrections officers perform keeping us safe from criminals and I’m appalled that all too often, officers themselves are targeted for assault, ambush or – as we found out in Dallas – death,” Burns said in a prepared statement prior to releasing text of the proposed bill. “If ever there was a group in need of being a protected class, it’s those who put their lives on the line everyday to keep the rest of us safe from the criminal element.”

Burns’ bill would amend the portion of Pennsylvania’s crimes and offenses law that deals with assault. Under that portion of the law, a criminal penalty can be made more severe if it’s “motivated by hatred toward the actual or perceived race, color, religion or national origin, ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals.” Burns’ bill would add “employment as a law enforcement officer” to that list of protected groups. Not only would it include officers working the streets of municipalities, cities, and the state police; it would also encompass “a corrections officer, a parole agent, and a member of a park police department in a county of the third class.”

Similar proposals have been advanced in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Florida.

At least one American Civil Liberties Union chapter has spoken out against the premise behind such proposals. When an alderman put forward Blue Lives Matter legislation in Chicago, the ACLU of Illinois issued a statement calling the measure a “distraction” that attempts “to shift attention from the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has challenged police abuse.”

But the ACLU isn’t the only group pointing to the uselessness of such laws.

When Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz teamed up with North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis to introduce the “Back The Blue Act of 2016,” the response from conservative thought leaders was tepid. The federal version of Pennsylvania’s Blue Lives law would enact a 30-year minimum sentence for killing a federal judge, or law enforcement officer. Conservative author and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald told Christian Science Monitor that these bills were more about pandering to cops than solving any significant policing issues. She said it’s “easy for legislators to pass legislation and they feel like they’re accomplishing something…” Former cop and current University of South Carolina assistant law professor told CSM, “I’m not really sure what establishing a mandatory minimum of 30 years is going to do, unless you really want to get them into the federal system for some reason.” Conservative blogger and Hot Air contributor Taylor Millard put it more bluntly:

“There is no reason whatsoever to make killing a police officer a federal crime. FBI stats show they’ve gone down on a pretty steady rate, with spikes here and there. It’s an unpopular sentiment to have following the murder of five Dallas police officers (and last night’s shootout in Baltimore), but what Cornyn, Cruz, and Tillis are trying to do is score brownie points with the law enforcement community.”

Pennsylvania’s law is similarly unneeded, explains ACLU-PA’s Deputy Legal Director, Mary Catherine Roper. “The current criminal code actually provides stronger penalties than the ‘hate crimes’ designation,” she said. “Hate crimes is a one level enhancement, the crimes code provides in some places for two levels difference between, say, simple assault on [a citizen] and simple assault on a cop.”

“There are more important ways to support police,” she continued. “Like pay them a professional salary.”

It’s a tough time to be a cop, that’s certain. With deranged killers taking out their homicidal anger on police in Baton Rouge and Dallas — killing eight officers in total — there’s no doubt that good cops need our support. But proposing redundant laws isn’t the way to do that.

Read Rep. Burns’ Pennsylvania bill here. Track its progress here.

Matt Stroud joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in 2016 as a criminal justice researcher and writer. Prior to joining the ACLU, Matt held staff reporting positions with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News, and has written for publications including Esquire, The Intercept, Politico, The Atlantic, and The Nation, as well as newspapers and magazines throughout Pennsylvania.

No, It’s Not Illegal to Record the Philadelphia Police!—Fields/Geraci Ruling Explained

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By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

On February 19, 2016, a federal trial court judge in Philadelphia ruled that there is no First Amendment right to record the police—unless you make it clear that you are recording for the purpose of criticizing the police. The ruling has confused lawyers and non-lawyers alike. We’ll break it all down for you.

What was the case about?

The ACLU-PA has filed several lawsuits against the City of Philadelphia on behalf of people who were arrested or detained for attempting to photograph or record the Philadelphia police performing their duties in public. The ACLU alleges that, for years, the City has ignored substantial evidence that Philadelphia police officers routinely retaliate against people who record them, and has failed to adequately train, supervise, or discipline officers. The two plaintiffs in these cases, Rick Fields and Amanda Geraci, filed the fourth and fifth lawsuits in the series.

In September 2013, Rick Fields, a Temple undergraduate student, observed approximately 20 police officers clearing out a house party across the street. He paused on the sidewalk to take a photo of the scene with his iPhone, and a police officer asked him whether he enjoyed photographing grown men and ordered him to leave. The officer then arrested Fields and cited him with obstructing a highway.

In September 2012, Amanda Geraci was serving as a legal observer at an anti-fracking protest at the Convention Center. When a protestor got arrested, Geraci tried to take photos of the arrest (as legal observers are trained to do), and a police officer pinned her up against a column and restrained her across the neck.

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What happened in the trial court?

The trial court granted what’s known as “summary judgment” to the defendants, throwing out Fields’ and Geraci’s First Amendment claims. Here’s how the judge who decided the case, the Honorable Mark A. Kearney, framed the issue:

[Rick Fields and Amanda Geraci] never told the police why they were capturing images of the police interacting with people they did not know. They were watching their police officers in action and wanted to capture the images because, at least for one of the citizens, “[i]t was an interesting scene. It would make a good picture” and for the other because she is a legal observer trained to observe the police. The question is whether citizens also enjoy a First Amendment right to photograph police absent any criticism or challenge to police conduct.

Judge Kearney’s answer was “no.” Here are excerpts of his explanation:

Neither [Fields nor Geraci] uttered any words to the effect he or she sought to take pictures to oppose police activity. Their particular behavior is only afforded First Amendment protection if we construe it as expressive conduct. . . .

Fields and Geraci essentially concede they spoke no words or conduct expressing criticism of the police before or during their image capture. They instead want to persuade us “observing” and “recording” police activity is expressive conduct entitled to First Amendment protection as a matter of law. In their view, observing is a component of “criticizing” and citizens may engage in speech critical of the government. We find no controlling authority compelling this broad a reading of First Amendment precedent.

Is the ACLU appealing?

Heck yes. We filed notices of appeal on March 21, 2016.

What have other courts said about whether there’s a First Amendment right to record the police?

The ability to scrutinize the actions of public officials is at the core of what the First Amendment is supposed to protect. The First Amendment protects access to information about the government as well as free expression. So every federal appeals court in the last decade and a half that has considered whether there’s a First Amendment right to record the police has ruled that, yes, there is. In other words, Judge Kearney’s ruling goes against the weight of authority. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (the federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania) hasn’t yet addressed that question. But the Fields and Geraci appeals will allow the Third Circuit a chance to weigh in soon.

Does the trial court decision in Fields and Geraci mean it is currently illegal to record the police in Philadelphia? Can I now be arrested in Philadelphia for taking pictures of the police?

NO! Even if there were no constitutional right to record the police (and, again, we think there absolutely is such a right), that doesn’t make it illegal to record the police. There is no law that prohibits you from recording the police. Police can only stop you or arrest you if they suspect you of a crime. Recording the police is not a crime. So it’s not a valid basis for a stop or an arrest.

And it’s worth noting that the Philadelphia Police Department agrees with the ACLU’s view of the First Amendment. Since November 2012, the official written policy of the Philadelphia Police Department has said that civilians do have a First Amendment right to record the police, and that police officers should expect to be recorded when they are out in public, and should not interfere with attempts to record them.

So by all means, go download our Mobile Justice app, and use it to record the police in public places. Civilian recordings are a vital tool for deterring police abuse and holding the police accountable when they cross the line. And if you have any questions about what you can and can’t do in Pennsylvania, read our “Know Your Rights” brochure about the right to record the police. Judge Kearney’s ruling doesn’t change anything in there.

So if I am still free to record the police, why does it matter whether or not the First Amendment protects that right?

Without a recognized First Amendment right to record the police, a legislature could pass a law making it illegal. Sound crazy? Well, Texas already tried to pass a law that would prohibit anyone standing within 25 feet of a police officer from recording them—whether or not they were in any way interfering with police activities. Constitutional protection is necessary to prevent that kind of legislative attack on our fundamental freedoms.

In addition, having the courts recognize a First Amendment right to record the police sends an important message. Like many public officials, police officers take an oath to uphold the Constitution. It’s important to establish that protecting the Constitution means respecting the public’s right to observe and record the police—a critical means of holding the police accountable for misconduct.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights. Molly is an active member of the Philadelphia Bar Association, serving as co-chair of the Civil Rights Committee in 2015 and 2016 and vice-chair of the Public Interest Section in 2016.

Pennsylvania: A State of Secrecy

By Crystle Craig, Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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Pay attention, because Pennsylvania lawmakers are on a path to decimating already delicate police-community relations. House Bill 1538 and Senate Bill 1061 mean to take decision-making power from local leadership, blanket law enforcement in a veil of secrecy, and keep the public ignorant to the actions of those who serve it.

Transparency is undeniably vital to any government, such as ours, that wishes to hold the trust and consent of its people. Yet, Pennsylvania is set to veil itself in secrecy in an attempt to shield its law enforcement officers from public accountability. In a time when police chiefs, governors and congressman across the country are calling to open the practices of police to public scrutiny, Pennsylvania’s bills take a tragic leap in the wrong direction.

Pennsylvania House Bill 1538 and Senate Bill 1061 would prohibit local leadership from identifying officers involved in use of force incidents against the people. Police chiefs, district attorneys, and mayors would be barred from disclosing such information until the completion of an official investigation. Under this language, the public could be left waiting virtually into perpetuity. If the investigation is prolonged for years, we would not know the names of potentially dangerous officers for years. If the investigation never closes, as some may be wont to do, the information could never be released. In other words, there is no limit upon the time under which dissemination may be prohibited. And Senate Bill 1061 goes even further by imposing criminal punishment against local leaders who decide to identify their officers, regardless of whether the disclosure was done for the public good and safety.

But the absence of logic is most troubling. In fact, nothing but baseless assumptions abound in these bills. Our lawmakers assume that Pennsylvanians are unreasonable and unstable. They imply that Pennsylvanians just cannot be trusted to do the right thing, as if we will only use disclosure for nefarious purposes rather than for accountability, healing, and peace of mind. In the eyes of our lawmakers, we can do the right thing when electing them, but we are just too emotionally unstable when seeking truth and justice. They assume this without being able to point to any known instances of officers being targeted after the disclosure of identifying information under Freedom of Information Act/ Right to Know Requests or at the discretion of local leadership.

Our lawmakers assume that our police chiefs, district attorneys, and mayors cannot act in the best interests of their officers and communities. Currently, local leadership has the ability to judge the circumstances within the community. They have the discretion to either disseminate information for the public good or to withhold it if the release of such information would put officers or public safety in jeopardy. But, our lawmakers want to ignore the fact that local leadership is in the best position to make judgment calls for their communities, not the detached politicians at the Capitol. They would substitute their inexperience and assumptions for the reasoned judgment of the local leadership who make decisions in consideration of the immediate realities of the local environment.

Evidently, our lawmakers have faith in no one but themselves.

But we must not forget that all departments of government, law enforcement especially, are accountable to the people. The trust of the people must be earned, not taken for granted. That requires transparency. Transparency encourages trust, serving as a vital check against power prone to corruption. Police power certainly is not immune to corruption, but “sunlight” acts as the best disinfectant for deterring and responding to corruption within any government agency. Police chiefs know this. Mayors know this. Governors understand it. And the people demand it.

Achieving a lawful police force is a never-ending task. A government of checks and balances is not enough without transparency, particularly within law enforcement. Police officers are given the unique power to detain and use force against the people, but, when doing so, they must adhere to the rules of law. The people must be able to know if the checks and balances are functioning; the people must know who can and cannot carry-out the demanding responsibility of upholding our laws so that good officers may be praised and the bad officers discarded. As John Adams wrote centuries ago, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.” This wisdom is wholly applicable to law enforcement today.

Transparency and public awareness are crucially important forces for maintaining fair, humane and lawful police forces. Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Ferguson all stand as undeniable parables to this end. Let us not forget their lessons as Pennsylvania lawmakers seem to have done with these “secret police” bills; let us speak up and against the veil of secrecy.


Crystle Craig is the 2015-16 Larry Frankel Legislative Fellow and a 2015 graduate of the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle.

Endgame for DNA Collection Debate?

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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For five years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has fought legislation to collect and store DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime. The varying forms of the legislation demanded DNA collection from people who had been arrested for or charged with certain crimes, flipping the idea of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head.

In each of the last two sessions, a bipartisan coalition of state representatives has turned back the legislation when it has reached the House. If you follow the personalities of state politics, check out this amendment vote from 2012. Those voting “yea” voted to remove the preconviction collection provision from that bill. Yes, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) and Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Pittsburgh) voted together, along with a host of liberals and conservatives and moderates.

On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee took up yet another version of this legislation. But instead of moving the bill along with the offending language, as the committee has done in the past, Chairman Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin County) offered an amendment to remove the language that requires DNA collection from people who have been arrested. His amendment replaced it with expansion of the current postconviction collection to include all first-degree misdemeanors and some second-degree misdemeanors.

While some civil libertarians won’t like expanding the post-conviction practice, which is currently for all felonies and a few misdemeanors, stopping across-the-board, blanket DNA collection from people who have not been convicted is, in the words of Vice President Biden, a big (frickin’) deal. Twenty eight states and the federal government collect DNA from people who have been arrested or charged but not convicted, and in 2013, a divided Supreme Court upheld the practice.

The privacy implications of preconviction DNA collection are huge. First, the government must jam a swab into your mouth or pluck a hair from your head or take blood to get a DNA sample. (The swab is the most common form of the practice.) In that practice alone, the government is in choppy privacy grounds in invading the person of someone who is still considered innocent under the law and in doing so without a warrant approved by a court.

Then, the government takes that very personal, very private information and uploads it to a database at the Pennsylvania State Police, which is linked to a query system at the FBI called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. Remember, our DNA contains more than 1,000 identifying characteristics about us. And while the profile created for these databases only contain the markers that identify a person, don’t kid yourself. The infrastructure is in place to store more. If you’re acquitted or never charged or exonerated, you have to go back to court to get your DNA profile out of the database.

Of course, every win comes at a cost. The Marsico amendment maintained and actually worsened language in the bill on “modified DNA searches,” or what are more commonly known as familial searches. You and your family members share DNA. The more distant the relative, the less DNA you share. If this language becomes law, a law enforcement agency can go to the state police and ask for a modified search. PSP would then determine if the evidentiary sample is a close enough match to someone in their database that it could be linked to a family member of that person. If your troublemaker cousin is in the DNA database, you’re in the DNA database.

(If any of my cousins are reading this, apologies for throwing you under the bus.)

Senate Bill 683 contains all sorts of requirements before a familial search can be conducted, but the Marsico amendment added language that prohibits a person from challenging an arrest, conviction, search, or any other investigatory action because the law enforcement agency did not follow the requirements. So the limitations on familial searches are, essentially, meaningless.

This will probably be a contentious issue if and when this bill makes it to the House floor. Familial searches are highly controversial. And in its opinion upholding Maryland’s arrestee DNA law, the Supreme Court suggested that familial searches may be unconstitutional.

This bill still has several steps to go before it is finished, so no one is declaring victory. But the House Judiciary Committee, for the first time in three tries, recognized that the will of the legislature- and, specifically, Republicans and Democrats in the House- wasn’t there to pass a bill to collect DNA from people who have not been convicted of a crime. That’s a BFD.

Read more about Senate Bill 683