At the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Civil rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Thursday arguing that Philadelphia police illegally stop pedestrians based on race and question them with little or no justification.

The lawsuit accuses the department of crossing a line with its aggressive "stop-and-frisk" policy, instituted in 2008 after Mayor Nutter declared a "crime emergency." It asks the court for remedies to prevent race-based pedestrian stops and other constitutional violations.

In 2009, police stopped 253,333 pedestrians, 72 percent of whom were African American, the suit said. Only 8 percent of the stops led to an arrest, often for "criminal conduct that was entirely independent from the supposed reason for the stop," according to the suit.

There’s more than a little bit of déjà vu to the case. As the Complaint notes:

The PPD has a history of conducting stops, frisks, detentions and searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion and of intentionally subjecting persons to these measures, at times accompanied by the unreasonable use of force, based on their race or ethnicity.

In 1996, in the matter of NAACP et al. v. City of Philadelphia, No. 96-6045, E.D. Pa., the parties entered into a Settlement Agreement that required the City of Philadelphia to implement policy and training initiatives to ensure that police officers abide by restrictions on their investigative powers under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. …

The events that precipitated the lawsuit in NAACP v. City of Philadelphia, known as the 39th Police District Scandal, involved the unlawful arrest, search th and prosecution of hundreds of persons on false or otherwise improper narcotics charges, virtually all of whom were African- American or Latino. Officers of the 39th Police District flagrantly violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments in the searches and arrests of these individuals.

Ultimately, the District Attorney of Philadelphia agreed to vacate hundreds of convictions, and the City of Philadelphia agreed to pay compensation to those wrongfully accused in a total amount of over $6 million. 

Philadelphia also agreed to monitoring of their practices, but the agreement terminated in 2005. Hence the new lawsuit, again brought by the ACLU and by the fine folks at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, a nominally-private firm that focuses on public interest cases like civil rights class actions.

Systematic constitutional violations by police departments are nothing new; just last week, Bob Herbert at The New York Times wrote about an identical stop-and-frisk problem at the NYPD. Unfortunately, given the common tendency to presume that government security personnel are superhuman, discussions about these types of problems quickly devolve into arguments about whether police officers are infallible heroes or malicious villains. There are a fair share of police officers who strive to meet the letter and spirit of the Constitution, and an unfortunate serving of police officers who use their badges to rob convenience stores and to bully anyone who crosses them, but the bulk of police officers are just regular folks doing a difficult, stressful job that requires they navigate a dizzying array of bureaucratic and procedural mazes and deal with a lot of unsavory, threatening characters.

It is no surprise whatsoever that police officers end up routinely violating constitutional rights. They serve in an institution that prides itself first on keeping the peace and, shall we say, somewhere less than second on adhering to Supreme Court precedent. They’re trained by negative experiences to fear and to suspect everyone they encounter. It’s easy to blame them when they go to far, but a lot harder to come up solutions better than complaining when they’re too aggressive and complaining when they’re too passive.

But the rights need to be protected somehow, not just for the sake of liberty, but for the sake of safety: the vast majority of these stop-and-frisk searches result in no arrest, and thus serve mostly to waste police time and to exacerbate relations between the police and the public.

Scott Greenfield, though, is less than sanguine about the ability of lawsuits to change police culture:

But no class-action decision is going to change anything on the streets, any more than another column by Bob Herbert about a policy that everyone knows stinks, and yet continues unabated, is going to make the police feel really badly about humiliating blacks and Hispanics.

We need recourse.  We need redress.  We need a way to stop this rampant refusal to honor a person’s constitutional right to walk the streets of New York City without being subject to one’s constitutional rights being violated at will.  The courts won’t do it.  The cops won’t do it.  The politicians won’t do it.  Heck, they all encourage it, though they would never exactly say so.

So anybody have a viable answer?  We could certainly use one.

There is a solution: independent auditing of police conduct. Consider what the Philadelphia Police Department did in response to chronic failures to investigate sexual assaults:

Chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), the session was convened to explore what Specter and a dozen witnesses – including Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, Carol E. Tracy of the Women’s Law Project of Philadelphia, and Villanova University law professor Michelle Dempsey – called "the chronic failure" of law enforcement to thoroughly investigate rapes.

Tracy explained that Philadelphia police had severely underreported rapes for decades through the 1990s, a problem brought to light by Inquirer investigative reporting, she said. In response to the problem, then-Police Commissioner John F. Timoney allowed Tracy’s group to annually audit the performance of the Special Victims Unit, a practice that has continued under Ramsey.

Ramsey heads the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement association dedicated to sharing best practices. He said Tuesday that he will call "a summit" on sexual assault in the coming year and urge other departments to work with advocacy groups in their jurisdictions to adopt the type of auditing arrangement that Philadelphia police have with the Women’s Law Project.

The program is, by any definition, a success. In the span of a decade, the PPD did indeed turn around many of its practices regarding sexual assault victims.

With regard to stop-and-frisk searches, the PPD had a similar program in place, but it terminated in 2005. The "answer" is to bring it back, at the City’s expense, and to enable those monitors to recommend reforms, to bring their concerns to City officials, and to, if need be, disclose their findings to the press.

Is this a perfect solution? Of course not. But it is a solution, and one that seemed to be a success even in the prior incarnation — as the Complaint notes, stop-and-frisk searches rose by 148% in the four years after the monitoring stopped in 2005. It’s likely that re-instituting the program will get that number back at least to where it was before.

Which means the ball is in the City’s court. They can fight the new class action to the bitter end, lose, and end up paying more to the plaintiff’s attorneys (since the compensation for constitutional violations include the award of attorney’s fees) or they can, as they did in the past, work with the plaintiffs to serve and protect not just our lives, but our liberties and pursuit of happiness.