West Philly woman taking on city over police observation arrest

It was June 15, 2011, and West Philly resident Alexine Fleck was walking her dog on Larchwood Avenue near her home. She saw a man, she tells me over coffee at Gold Standard Café on Baltimore Ave., who “wasn’t in a very happy place.”

She asked him if he was OK. He said yes. She moved on.

Some time later, after returning her dog home, she again walked down her block en route to her job at Community College of Philadelphia, where she is a professor of English. Then, according to court documents, she saw the same man on the street, only this time, Philadelphia police officer Alex Nicholson was standing over him, holding a baton.

Fleck asked Nicholson if everything was OK, then noticed a syringe between the unidentified man’s legs and offered to dispose of it. A former volunteer at Prevention Point Philadelphia, she was knowledgeable about needle safety.

The officer told Fleck to take ten steps back. She did, then asked if she could have Nicholson’s name and badge number, noting: “I’m just going to observe you.”

He told her to leave. A few moments later, another unidentified female officer (referred to as Jane Doe in documents) showed up at the scene. Fleck told the female officer she was observing, and the officer, in response, told Fleck possession of a syringe is illegal.

Except it’s not, explained Fleck. She offered to show them the executive order which permits drug users to carry syringes.

Fleck was arrested and held for three hours, according to documents.

The charges were dismissed, but now she’s suing the city of Philadelphia, with help from civil rights lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.  And her case takes place in the larger context of incidents in which police officers have deemed it illegal to be observed by citizens on the street.

As Fleck remembers it, things seemed wrong from the get-go. “The minute I turned toward him, I could tell he was mad. He raised his voice at me,” she says of the incident today.

This was surprising. Especially since her past experiences with police officers had been positive.

While earning her doctoral degree at UPenn, Fleck volunteered with Prevention Point, and, according to a 2007 profile in the Ivy League school’s magazine, also worked as an ethnographer “collecting data on HIV-risk communities for Penn’s Center for Studies of Addiction,” where she gathered information. The role eventually earned her the nickname “the Condom Lady” by locals to whom she handed out free prophylactics. She still possesses a Prevention Point card, just to have it.

“My experience with the police had always been that they knew what we were doing—and what I was doing—on the street,” she says. “They understood that we were playing a role in reducing HIV.”

She recalls a story in which she was no longer volunteering with Prevention Point or working at Penn, yet still went to northwest Philadelphia to do what she could to help. A police officer drove by and asked her what she was doing. She explained. “Twenty minutes later, a confused young woman came up to me and said, ‘A police officer said I should come here to talk to you.’ I figured out he knew what she was doing and he actually sent her to me,” she said.

Fleck wrote her doctoral thesis on addiction (even though her degree is in English) and says her teaching job as a professor of women’s studies and developmental English is, as was put in her 2007 profile, “a form of harm reduction for the future.”

All of which is partly why her 2011 ordeal was so surreal. Up until the point Officer Jane Doe told her to put down her bag, “the idea of getting arrested didn’t even enter my mind,” she says. “It’s not like I decided to get arrested in some kind of political protest. I took my knocks for what I believed in, but I didn’t know what those knocks would exactly be.”

According to court documents, when Fleck asked the officer why she need to drop her bag, Doe had a pretty straight answer.

“I’m going to cuff you,” the officer replied.

Fleck responded: “Are you serious?”

She was held at the 18th District Headquarters for about three hours, and, she recalls, was not able to make a phone call—not even to CCP, whom she would have liked to tell about her ordeal so they could cancel her class.

The Philadelphia Police Department did not comment on this issue, citing it being pending legislation.

“My students pay money to come and get an education,” Fleck says. “They take it seriously, and I take it seriously. And for me to just not show up to class like that without being able to communicate what was going on, that was not fair to them.” All she had to do, she says, was make a phone call and ask for a note to be put on her door. “Instead, [my students] had to sit there and wonder what was going on.”

Fleck was charged with failure to disperse. And over the next couple days, she wrote a blog about the experience on her LiveJournal page, in which she wrote under a pseudonym. Not only did other LiveJournal users paste it to their blogs, but it made its way onto her neighborhood listserv. “Everyone had an opinion,” she remembers. “People seem to want to have the conversation about it, and given the chance, people had strong opinions.”

Within days, the ACLU had contacted her about the incident.

Thirteen months later, she returned to community court, where her charges were dismissed.

The ACLU has used Fleck’s case to bring up other police observation incidents in the city.

“Police have extraordinary power in our society,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a news release about Fleck’s case. “Citizens have the right to serve as a check on that power by observing and recording police officers in the course of their duties.”

With regard to needle exchange programs, an American Journal of Public Health article published in 2005 noted several problems in Philadelphia between police and syringe exchange program users. “Many instances of police harassment of syringe exchange program users have been reported by exchange staff since the operation began, and on at least one occasion, a syringe exchange program user was arrested for possessing syringes procured at the syringe exchange program,” wrote researchers Corey Davis, Scott Burris, Julie Kraut-Becher, Kevin Lynch and David Metzger.

“In Philadelphia, syringe exchange has been permitted via Executive Order since 1992. People who are members of the syringe exchange program (Prevention Point Philadelphia) are permitted to carry syringes (and in any event, possession of a syringe, in and of itself, is not illegal),” Davis, who is currently a staff attorney at National Health Law Program, wrote via email today. “However, in my experience as both a researcher and former legal clinic director at Prevention Point, this order is routinely violated, and drug users are often stopped, searched, and have their legal syringes confiscated. So the fact that the police officer in question may have been engaged in some sort of activity with a drug user or suspected drug user that he didn’t want a member of the public (particularly one with knowledge of the law in this area) to observe isn’t necessarily surprising.”

Among the incidents used as examples in the ACLU’s filing, there’s a July 23, 2010 incident in which two residents, Melissa Hurling and Shakir Riley, were assaulted after attempting to use their cell phones to record a violent arrest. Several other incidents are detailed in the court filing of Fleck’s case.

Also detailed in the news release is a new ACLU case, in which then-photojournalism student Coulter Loeb photographed a police officer escorting an alleged homeless woman out of Rittenhouse Square and was then arrested for disorderly conduct, only to have the charges dismissed a month later. Loeb’s incident happened around the same time as Fleck’s.

“We have this general problem where people who want to participate in their own community, who want to be good citizens, are somehow intimidated, and police don’t want them to watch,” says Fleck. “I think, in general, people are afraid to put their necks out because they are really genuinely intimidated, and I think that’s a problem. I don’t blame people for not putting their necks out. I blame the intimidation.”

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

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