Lawyers representing some Delaware County residents are asking Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to look into a pattern of racial discrimination by Chester Township’s police department.
The move comes after the release of a second video involving the arrest of a black man for loitering in front of his house and resisting arrest.
The latest video shows Brandon Alvin being arrested in front of his home on the evening of Sept. 21, while his wife and family members call out that he lives there.
Alvin lives in the same public housing complex where, two weeks ago, four members of the Briggs family were arrested for loitering in front of their home and resisting arrest.
Attorney Thomas Fitzpatrick, who represents both Alvin and the members of the Briggs family, said at a press conference Wednesday that discriminatory policing has gone on in that particular housing complex for years.
“This is an ongoing pattern and practice and, indeed, a policy by Chester Township, the body politic, and the Delaware County at large concerning the over-policing of African Americans in this community and how they are treated in general,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Briggs family has filed a lawsuit against the police department.
The department referred questions to the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, which is investigating. Repeated attempts were made to contact the DA’s Office Wednesday, but no one was available for comment.
A representative from Shapiro’s office said Wednesday evening that it had not yet received the request that it look into the Chester Township matter.
About 80% of Chester Township’s 4,600 residents are black. The officers involved in the cases in question are white.
The same officer, Pasquale Storace III, can be seen in both videos making the arrests.
“Knowing what we know now, we’re calling for the immediate removal of Officer Pasquale Storace from the Chester Township Police Department,” Fitzpatrick said. “In addition to that, we’re calling for an investigation by the Attorney General’s Office into the developments in Chester Township and what’s been going on with these arrests.”
According to an affidavit signed by Officer Storace, the incident began outside about 8:45 p.m. Sept. 21, when Storace noticed Alvin leaning against the window of a red GMC truck that Alvin’s lawyers say belonged to Alvin’s cousin.
Storace told Alvin he was loitering and ordered him to put his hands behind his head, interlocking his fingers, so that he could be patted down and searched, the affidavit says. When Alvin refused, Storace attempted to take him into custody. When Alvin attempted to pull away, Storace tried to put handcuffs on him, and when Alvin resisted, he was sprayed with pepper spray, twice, while the other officers attempted to put on handcuffs and take him into custody.
“Mr. Alvin did not commit a crime that night,” said attorney Kevin Mincey, who along with Fitzpatrick represents both Alvin and the Briggs family.
According to Mincey and Fitzpatrick, their Center City law office has received 10 to 12 calls from other residents of the same Chester Township public housing complex with similar complaints involving loitering charges and confrontations with Officer Storace.
Mincey said that Alvin showed the video of his arrest to the District Attorney’s Office at his hearing this month, and that the DA’s Office requested a continuance and will take up the case in December.
Loitering laws: A long, complex history
Chester Township’s loitering ordinance, like loitering laws through the country, has been a source of controversy. A prior version was struck down by a judge in 2012 for being too vague. The new law, which is not available online, says loitering is forbidden “in any area within the township which has been designated by the Township Council as a no loitering area.”
Mincey and Fitzpatrick said there were no signs near the families’ homes stating that loitering was not permitted.
“This is simply an arbitrary and discriminatory application of an invisible statute that’s made so that people cannot know what the law is,” Fitzpatrick said. “And it’s made so that they can impose a tax on people for being people of color and for living in poorer communities.”
Loitering laws have a long and complex history. They date back to Elizabethan England when they were used for crime prevention. But over time, they were increasingly used for social control — often targeting minority groups, from blacks to LGBTQ groups, said Risa Goluboff, dean of the University of Virginia School of Law and author of “Vagrant Nation.”
“The history of loitering and vagrancy laws in the United States is very closely linked to racial regulation and oppression,” Goluboff said, “and to the shoring up of Jim Crow laws in the South and the shoring up of racial segregation and hierarchy in the rest of the country as well.”
By 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down many versions of these laws, a trend that has continued at the Supreme Court level as recently as 1999 in Chicago v. Morales, when the court struck down a Chicago loitering law that targeted gangs. In light of those cases, municipalities have tried to revamp loitering laws to make them more constitutionally palatable.
Even so, Goluboff said, many revised laws, like ones requiring signs, still might not pass constitutional muster due to the inherently vague nature of loitering.
“If you’re asking the question, what’s motivating the courts that have struck down these laws? Those courts are saying you can’t arrest people for doing the things they do in their daily lives in spaces where what they’re doing is appropriate,” Goluboff said.
Mincey and Fitzpatrick said they are talking with other potential plaintiffs about filing a class-action lawsuit against the Chester Township Police Department.
“There needs to be an inquiry,” Fitzpatrick said. “There needs to be an investigation. And there needs to be immediate action as it relates to Officer Storace.”