“I’m tired of having to go to the office armed,” my wife said one day last March. She was not alone in going armed—especially not since the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had entered the case of the “Center City Stalker,” a young black man who had committed a series of robberies and sexual assaults between January and March of 1988 in Center City, Philadelphia. Rumors circulated each day of additional attacks that had not been publicized in order to prevent wholesale panic.

Center City was blanketed with police sketches of the suspect, and many a young black man took a trip to police headquarters for questioning because of a resemblance to the man in the sketch.

This was too close to fascism for the comfort of the local ACLU, which sought an injunction in federal court to prevent the police from taking people in just because they looked like the man in the sketch—translation: just because they’re black. The police department and the city caved in to this legalistic lunacy, agreeing in an out-of-court settlement not to take in anyone for questioning who didn’t volunteer to go (if the only probable cause was a resemblance to the man in the sketch).

There was outrage over this decision—especially among women who ride the dangerous subway into Center City each day, and among street cops who were restricted in what they could do with the evidence of their own eyeballs—but the decision had the wholehearted support of the town’s progressive forces, and no one in an official capacity spoke out against it. The Stalker would have been able to reduce his chances of being apprehended (if he happened to be stopped) by politely refusing to volunteer his time to aid in the pursuit of justice.

Admittedly, it’s possible to do a lot ‘of hairsplitting about how enthusiastic a cop is allowed to be in hauling in suspects on the evidence of police sketches—drawn, often as not, with the help of people under a good deal of emotional stress. Sitting in an armchair in a law office, or judge’s chambers, it’s easy to mark a dividing line between acting on reasonable probability and engaging in old-fashioned rousting. On the street, it’s more difficult, especially when reticence could enable a criminal to attack the next victim—an error that would be hard for a cop to live with.

My wife advanced the novel idea that she would ask the ACLU to file a class-action suit on behalf of all women who live or work in Center City against the police department—on the theory that their capitulation to the idiotic demands of the ACLU was a violation of the right of these women to receive the police protection they pay for. Kate’s not a lawyer, but she recognized the out-of-court settlement for what it was—a formal agreement to commit nonfeasance on a massive scale, sanctioned by a US district judge.

We got lucky, though. Police arrested a suspect, thirty-five-year-old Reynard Gregory, on March 23, 1988. On November 11, after a day and a half of deliberation, a jury found him guilty on all counts—ten robberies, three attempted rapes, and seven indecent assaults. Last month was sentenced to somewhere between one hundred and two hundred years in jail.

It doesn’t seem to matter to anyone here now, but the original police sketch of the “Center City Stalker”—which the ACLU felt provided police with an excuse for racial harassment—turns out to have been a very good likeness of the convicted man.

—J. Michael Bolinski