Did you know Spotlight PA is a nonprofit? Learn more about our nonpartisan journalism »
Skip to main content
Main content

State police under scrutiny for traffic stops, searches

The Investigator

Your guide to the Capitol & stories holding the powerful to account

Sept. 3, 2020 | spotlightpa.org
Defense and civil rights attorneys call it highway stop-and-frisk.

Pennsylvania State Police troopers pull drivers over on minor traffic violations, use shaky grounds to search their cars, and, in some instances, find drugs. They point to those cases as justification for the practice. But what they don't track is how many times they search cars and find nothing.

What's more, a two-month investigation by Spotlight PA and The Appeal found that many cases were later tossed out by a judge or challenged by defendants as illegal. Almost a third of the cases reviewed were sealed, indicating they were dismissed, while another third are currently being contested in court.

Our reporting also found troopers regularly use boilerplate language to justify searches — a violation of their training and a revelation one expert called "shocking."

We're already getting results from our reporting. Gov. Tom Wolf has directed the Office of Inspector General to review the legality of the stops "to ensure that protocols were followed and training is appropriate." If you value investigative journalism that gets results, please support our work and donate today.

Spotlight PA is committed to holding those in power accountable, including as it relates to the state's response to COVID-19. Just this week, we found that public reports are still missing death data for dozens of nursing homes, which in at least one case obscured a deadly outbreak.  

Finally, as we celebrate our first birthday as a newsroom, we're proud to announce Spotlight PA has been named a finalist for two national awards honoring excellence in digital journalism.

Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA

"There’s just nowhere we can go."

— Jason Kiefer, an out-of-work father near Allentown, who got a temporary reprieve from eviction this week because of a federal order

Latest on COVID-19

As schools and colleges reopen, all eyes are on Pennsylvania's COVID-19 numbers. While daily cases have leveled off, several colleges across the state are reporting new outbreaks. Get a full statewide look with our coronavirus tracker and sign up for weekly alerts with the latest data localized for your county

More from Spotlight PA

» Federal order protects many Pa. renters from eviction, legal challenges may arise
» Wolf says he can’t extend Pa.’s eviction ban, looks to lawmakers
» GOP moves election bill that would ban drop boxes, get mail-in ballots to voters earlier
» Surge in mail-in ballots could delay election results, so Wolf wants to change the rules

Want to help renters? Give them cash directly, experts say.

There’s widespread agreement in the Capitol that Pennsylvania’s $150 million rental assistance program to keep families in their homes during the coronavirus pandemic isn’t working. 

A $750 cap on monthly assistance payments, as well as a requirement that landlords forgive any outstanding rent above that cap, has made many reluctant to participate. In Philadelphia, for instance, almost two-thirds of applications cannot move forward, because they come from tenants whose landlords won’t take part.  

Democrats in the state legislature have proposed a raft of changes to fix the problem. But no one is talking about what some experts say might be a better solution: giving the money directly to tenants instead of landlords.  

If the assistance payments went to tenants directly, the program would likely have a 90% participation rate in Philadelphia, said Gregory Heller, senior vice president of community investment at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation, which is administering the rental assistance program in the city. 

“If the challenge is getting landlords to participate, there is a different approach,” he said. 

Section 8, the federal government’s main rental assistance program for low-income families, has a similar problem. In Philadelphia, the landlord participation rate is about 50%, Heller said. Like Section 8, most rental assistance programs are set up to pay landlords directly. 

The downside is that landlords typically have to agree to participate upfront, often filling out paperwork and accepting certain conditions. This creates an “administrative cost” that can become a deterrent, said Vincent Reina, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Giving money directly to tenants, instead, reduces that administrative cost.

With cities and states scrambling to set up new programs to distribute CARES Act funding, relatively few have tried this approach. Chicago offered one-time cash grants to struggling tenants — money that was paid to them directly. 

Paying tenants can also bring more flexibility, said Ann Oliva, a visiting senior fellow at Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who previously worked for 10 years at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That can help assistance reach people who might be shut out of programs that require tenants to have a written lease, for instance. 

Still, paying rental assistance to tenants and not their landlords would require a radical shift in how we think about public assistance programs, experts acknowledge.

Concerns about how cash benefit payments are spent have led lawmakers nationwide to institute strict rules and regulations intended to ensure accountability for public money. But these measures often create inefficiencies that tend to fall on the low-income families trying to get help, Reina said. What if, instead, policymakers trusted those families to spend their assistance payments on the things they need the most? 

“People often don’t realize how difficult it is to use housing assistance in its current form,” he said.

Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA

From across the state

» The Public Utility Commission voted to continue — for at least another month — the state’s ban on utility shutoffs for those unable to pay, The Inquirer reports. But that doesn’t help customers of municipal-run utilities like those in Ephrata, which recently resumed disconnections.

» Thousands of Pa. nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 in the six months since the pandemic began. But a new PublicSource report looks at one facility that was able to avoid the devastation. Among the lessons: an early ban on visitors and staff education.

» Vigilantes, most white and armed, have clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, a place where racial tensions were already high. The New Yorker talked to one community organizer who’s attempting to bridge the divide.

More good reads

» AP: Pa. Supreme Court takes up lawsuit requesting longer mail-in ballot deadline
» CAPITAL-STAR: Pa.'s eviction ban has expired, but it’s still facing a legal challenge
» INQUIRER: Many rules are still up in the air with only two months until election
» MORNING CALL: As small police departments disband, this borough started one
» THE REPORTER: Constituents win after elected official blocked them on social media
» THE SENTINEL: Cumberland County DA called on to resign over Facebook post
» WHYY: West Philly residents are demanding change to racist transportation policy
» WITF: Police, prison guards want compliance, but it can hurt people with mental illness

Yaasmeen Piper of Spotlight PA


Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org.

QUITE A HAUL (Case No. 54): There are three sacks that need to be carried to the curb for garbage day. One contains a pound of sand, another a pound of feathers, and a third a pound of leaves. Which sack would be the lightest to carry?
Stumped? Get a hintFeeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: You finished in second place.

Congrats to Nathan B, who will receive Spotlight PA swag (when we reopen our office!) Others who answered correctly: Jennifer H., Michele M., Kevin M., Kathy W., Barbara M., Judy A., Philip C., Rick S., Hagan H., Dennis P., Lois P., Lindsey S., Eric K., Dennis S., Sandy O., Rebekah Z., Mike M., Joseph S., Matt B., Bob S., Dave D., Annette I., Gerry W., Cathy V., Melanie B., Rodney S., Lynda G., Karen K., Lou R., Jason C., Norman S.A., Joan C., Roseanne D., William D., Alice O., Eileen D., Steven B., Heather B., Dorothy K., Carl B., Robert K., Jonathan N., Marvin S., Joseph A., and Jaymes D.
» This week's Riddler hint: It's the weight that matters.

Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

Copyright © Spotlight PA / The Philadelphia Inquirer, All rights reserved.

Spotlight PA
225 Market St., Suite 502A
Harrisburg, PA 17101

You're receiving this email because you signed up for updates about Spotlight PA's journalism. 
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.