All three front-runners in the race to be Philadelphia’s next mayor are swinging at the police tactic known as “stop and frisk,” with each pledging to end the practice completely.
At the same time, the trio of mayoral hopefuls is praising the work of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, and they all have said that he would remain the leader of the city’s police force if he so chooses, despite Ramsey’s fierce championing of stop and frisk.
So the question becomes, can the next mayor retain Ramsey and end stop and frisk?
“None of these leaders, and certainly not Charles Ramsey, would be in favor of abolishing stop and frisk had it not become a national embarrassment for various police departments,” said Drexel political science professor George Ciccariello-Maher.
If the candidates are serious about ending stop and frisk, Ciccariello-Maher said, it’s not likely that Ramsey stays the city’s top cop.
In 2010, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit attacking stop and frisk as an illegal privacy violation that disproportionally affects blacks and Latinos.
Since the suit was filed, the Philadelphia Police Department has been under a court order to release data about the use of stop and frisk. In the ACLU’s latest report since the court appointed a monitor, it found that nearly four out of 10 stops were conducted without reasonable suspicion, thus violating the Fourth Amendment. According to the department’s data, there were more than 200,000 pedestrian stops in 2014, more than double the number before Mayor Michael Nutter took office.
And in the sample of 2014 stops that the ACLU examined, guns were seized in about one of every 500 stops.
Officials from the ACLU said despite having four years to improve their practices, Philadelphia’s police officers continue to makes thousands of inappropriate stops.
If improvement continues to be elusive, the civil liberties group said, further litigation is possible.
In an interview, Ramsey defended the practice as a useful deterrent, pointing to the city’s declining rate of violent crimes and historically low murder rate as proof.
As a matter of semantics, Ramsey said, within the department the phrase “stop and frisk” is intentionally avoided.
“We don’t talk about stop and frisk. You all talk about stop and frisk. But we don’t talk about stop and frisk. We talk about Terry stops, because that reinforces the guidelines,” Ramsey said.
He’s referring to a 1968 Supreme Court ruling in Terry v. Ohio, which found that stopping and frisking an individual is permissible if a police officer has reasonable suspicion that he or she committed a crime or is about to, a calculation that turns on whether an officer has the “reasonable cause” to believe that danger is imminent.
“Stop and frisk without reasonable suspicion is wrong, period,” Ramsey said. But if it falls within constitutional guidelines, “it’s something we can do, and something we will continue to do.”
The policy has become a political football, Ramsey said, adding that many who are enraged over it don’t understand how the department is actually using it.
“If you believe a person has committed a crime, or is about to commit a crime, you have the reasonable suspicion you need, you stop an individual. You may or may not frisk them for weapons, but you may,” Ramsey said. “It doesn’t mean that every time you’re going to get a weapon. To think that because the percentage of times you get a weapon is relatively low, that that somehow means that it’s bad, is not the way you ought to look at it. It’s not realistic.”
He said the nearly 40 percent of illegal stops reported by the ACLU reported are inexcusable, and he said the department is laboring to bring that number down.
“I got a lot of police officers, and I’m not saying there’s no such thing as an illegal stop. I’m not naïve. But that’s not how we train. That’s not what we expect,” Ramsey said. “And we take action if we find that an officer is conducting himself improperly.”
Ciccariello-Maher, meanwhile, said whether the searches are conducted by the letter of the law doesn’t change community perceptions of the practice as intrusive.
“If Philadelphia and other cities in the country want to grapple seriously with violent crime, then they need to grapple with the social conditions of that crime: massive disparities in poverty,” he said. “The fact that men going to jail and coming out have almost no access to work and are often thrown back into lives of crime. So you have a situation in which these policing policies are not only not working, but contributing to the underlying factors that drive these violent crimes.”
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The candidates on Ramsey and stop and frisk:
Lynne Abraham: “Even though we disagree on the merits of the stop and frisk policy, Commissioner Ramsey has done an outstanding job. His work with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing is of the highest order and is properly commended. He is taking steps to implement the report to help restore the trust between the community and the police.
“As mayor, I would end Mayor Nutter’ s stop and frisk policy, which infringes on our citizens constitutional rights and disproportionately targets minority youth.”
Jim Kenney: “If [I’m] mayor, stop and frisk will end in Philadelphia, no question. [I] would like to work with Commissioner Ramsey as well as the FOP to find a responsible way to bring that practice to an end.
“Given his rising star on the national scene, it’s likely that Commissioner Ramsey may choose to move onto a new position, and if that’s the case, I’ll work with successor to reach the same end.”
Anthony Williams: “I stand by my statement that stop and frisk is neither efficient or effective and would eliminate it. I would work with the police commissioner to make sure he has the tools he needs while policing in a way that ensures communities are respected.”