As Loitering and Curfew Arrests Decline Nationwide, Philadelphia's Use of the Tactic Stands Out

John Kelly and Pete Madden, abc News •

Data shows the vast majority of those arrested were young black people.

The vast majority of police departments in the United States have not reported any arrests for loitering or curfew violations in recent years, a sign that the controversial police tactic is falling out of favor. But an ABC News analysis of recent arrest data shows that, even as use of the tactic declines dramatically nationwide, some departments continue to use it aggressively.

One of its most prolific proponents? The Philadelphia Police Department.

According to data voluntarily reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by thousands of city and county police departments around the country, the Philadelphia Police Department reported arresting more young people for loitering and curfew violations than any other city in the United States from 2016 to 2018.

Even as their overall number of loitering and curfew arrests declined each year, Philadelphia police still arrested 15,552 people — all of them juveniles — for those offenses over that three-year period, 10 times more than Nashville, which reported arresting the second most people. In 2018, Philadelphia accounted for nearly 1 in 4 loitering arrests nationwide.

The analysis of those arrests, conducted by ABC News in collaboration with ABC-owned stations, reveals a stark racial disparity. About 42% of Philadelphia’s population is black; about 63% of people arrested for all crimes throughout the city were black; but about 85% of arrests for loitering and curfew violations were made against young black people.

Riya Saha Shah, an attorney for the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, said those numbers are “striking for sure, but not surprising.”

“There’s a long history of treating young black people differently than young white people in terms of how criminal laws are applied,” Shah told ABC News. “It all goes back to how they are being policed. When you couple discretionary charges with over-policing, you see a racial disparity.”

In response to questions from ABC News, the Philadelphia Police Department issued a brief statement.

“In order to adequately comment on your findings, we would also have [to] perform a data analysis,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said. “That stated, we remain deeply concerned about the racial disparities that exist at all decision points in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. As announced Tuesday, we are joining the City in enacting numerous police reform measures that will serve to address disparities such as these, and bring about the meaningful change we all desire.”

Loitering statutes vary widely, but in Philadelphia, the city’s statute defines loitering as “idling or lounging in or about any place or facility … so as to prevent others from passage, ingress or egress, or to idle or lounge in or about any place or facility.”

Similarly, according to the Philadelphia Police Department’s Enforcement of Curfew Ordinance, updated most recently in 2014, “no minor shall remain in or upon any public place or any establishment from the Evening Curfew Time,” which varies by season, day of the week and the minor’s age, unless accompanied by a parent or doing some other “legitimate” business.

Police departments once viewed loitering arrests as an effective tool for disrupting certain types of criminal activity, such as drug dealing and prostitution, but departments across the country appear to have decreased their reliance on the tactic as concern has grown that leads to racial profiling.

Legal experts broadly agree that it is a highly discretionary charge, and in past legal challenges to its constitutionality, jurists have questioned whether loitering statues are vague, overly broad and highly vulnerable to discriminatory enforcement.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that one city’s loitering statute “encourages arbitrary and erratic arrests and convictions, it makes criminal activities that, by modern standards, are normally innocent, and it places almost unfettered discretion in the hands of the police.”

According to Andrew Leipold, a professor of criminal law and procedure at the University of Illinois College of Law, loitering laws disproportionately affect minority communities.

“Loitering statues have historically targeted the poor and have historically targeted minorities,” Leipold told ABC News. “The overlap makes it difficult to untangle, but minorities are nevertheless disproportionately affected.”