The total number of local swabs to date is unclear (the PPD didn’t return PW’s inquiry) and so is the method.
On a recent cold Tuesday morning under the El on Kensington Avenue, some men made claims about recent mass swabbings.
“They stopped all the traffic from Kensington and Somerset to Lehigh. Just took everybody they saw,” says a 35-year-old black man named Shawn. He says about two weeks ago, the police took him and about 30 others down to police headquarters. “We sat there for a day, they let us go the next day. If you don’t sign this consent, they keep you a longer time.”
“Is that against the law?” he wonders.
Workers in the stores are more skeptical. “I ain’t seen nothing like that and we’re up here every day,” a Latino says at an auto parts store up the street.
“Junkies probably told you that,” laughs a white man in an appliance store on the corner at Somerset. “You wanna buy some land in Florida?
Others swear the swabbings are real. “They swabbed me though I wasn’t doing anything. I was walking around, just like that,” says a grizzled middle-aged white man, drinking a tallboy in the deli under the el. “I don’t care, I’m a felon so it’s already in there. They put a swab in my mouth, and they were like, nah, you don’t match. They do it right in the street.”
“I’ve seen it and heard it. They take a bunch of people downtown,” adds a man sitting in an opposing booth.
“They put a swab in your mouth and they put it in this little tube,” the white guy continues. “They think everybody that has a black hoodie on is this guy. I’ve been stopped over four times for this, over the last couple months. But they only did the swab one time. I’m white! Do I look like him?”
Across the street in a check-cashing joint, a light-skinned black man named Zaire talks while scratching off lotto tickets. “They just come grip you up. Say for instance you walk outside, they not gonna care who you are, they just gonna grip you up and take you,” he says.
“It was when Mayor Nutter was over here, had that speech about the rapist. They came down here with the van, told everyone to hop in. They take you to the district.” Zaire, 28, says he was let out fairly quickly, but some people were held longer.
“One of my guys was there for three days,” says an older man standing nearby. “Sometimes they keep you like 32 hours in case the DNA comes out to whatever.”
Kelvyn Anderson, deputy director of the Police Advisory Commission, confirms that the only stop-and-swab complaint filed with his office was from Manuel Sanchez.
Hidden in Plain Sight
This catch-the-killer-by-any-means-necessary attitude stirs up debate. Some people believe that with a threat like the Strangler on the loose, the police should be empowered to bend the rules, that we don’t need all the squawking about civil rights when people are afraid to leave their homes.
“A number of people would say of course that the ends justifies the means,” says attorney Edward Ohlbaum, professor at Temple University School of Law. “That if we can get this guy of the street, who cares?”
Indeed, on the more than 11,000 member-strong public Facebook group, ‘Catch the Kensington Killer before he catches someone you love,’ many people have encouraged the idea that the police should do whatever it takes to apprehend the Strangler (while, ironically, calling them ‘scum’ for disrespecting residents).
“If it takes 50 innocent [people] to take a DNA test to find one guilty man so be it,” posted one member. “I’m thinking [they] should have every single person [in the] world’s DNA on file,” posted another, echoing a sentiment controversially expressed by politicians such as Rudy Giuliani, who once stated all newborns should be swabbed, their DNA catalogued in a genetic library.
But legally, the end doesn’t justify the means. To the contrary, the means pollute the end.
“If by chance you got the right guy, because of your unconstitutional seizure of that evidence, which is now going to be suppressed … Because of that unconstitutional violation, we’ve allowed a criminal to go free,” says Ohlbaum.