Philly civil rights groups demand that the mayor end stop-and-frisk

Will Mega of the Human Rights Coalition 215 stood with other activists outside Philadelphia Police’s 26th district precinct to demand an end to stop-and-frisk policies in the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Will Mega of the Human Rights Coalition 215 stood with other activists outside Philadelphia Police’s 26th district precinct to demand an end to stop-and-frisk policies in the city. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A coalition of Black civil rights activists in Philadelphia is demanding that Mayor Jim Kenney end stop-and-frisk, a controversial policing tactic that rarely results in officers seizing firearms from suspects in the city and disproportionately targets people of color.

The call comes as people in the city and nationwide continue to demand systemic changes to law enforcement in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

During a news conference Tuesday outside the 26th Police District in Fishtown, speaker after speaker railed against the tactic, calling it racist and arguing that it could set up potentially deadly interactions with police officers.

“We’re asking him to end stop-and-frisk because the moment that you stop that, that lowers the probability of our children being choked in the first place,” said Dawud Bey, co-founder of the Human Rights Coalition 215, a new group working to create a social, political and economical agenda for Black residents in Philadelphia.

Dawud Bey with the Human Rights Coalition 215 holds a letter to Philadelphia Mayor Jim Keney demanding he end stop-and-frisk. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ending stop-and-frisk would also reduce the chances of innocent men landing in prison for allegedly violating parole, the group said.

In 2003, police pulled over Rickey Duncan in a predominately white section of South Philadelphia after he dropped off a friend, who is white, at home.

Duncan, who is Black, said that police “grabbed” his then-6-year-old son out of the car, and that an officer then threw Duncan on the ground.

“They said there were drugs in the car,” he said.

There weren’t. But the stop and ensuing arrest sent Duncan, who was on parole for charges stemming from selling drugs, to a state prison for 18 months while he fought the case.

“They threw it out the first time, they recharged me, and then the second time I went to trial and beat it for illegal search and seizure,” said Duncan.

“It was hard,” he added. “I was away from my family, and my family had to struggle.”

The coalition said it chose Fishtown to highlight the persistent racial disparities that have dogged the practice for years, including in that neighborhood.

Under a federal consent decree brokered nearly a decade ago, a team of civil rights attorneys began tracking the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of pedestrian stop-and-frisks with the hope of eliminating its unlawful use.

An officer must “reasonably believe” that someone has broken the law before making a stop, and must have “reasonable suspicion” that a suspect is armed and could harm them before patting them down, according to police department policy.

Though the total number of reported stops — both lawful and unlawful — has dropped to less than 80,000 a year compared to 260,000 in 2011, police still stopped a disproportionate number of non-white residents, mostly younger Black men, often for minor, nonviolent crimes, according to attorneys part of the case.

Their 10th and latest report to a federal judge found that Black people accounted for 71% of all stops in a random sample from the second half of 2019.

In one section of the 26th Police District, which also covers parts of Kensington, Black residents make up 30% of the population, but accounted for 52% of the stops police made in the area during the second half of 2019, according to the report.

In another section of the district, Black people accounted for 25% of the stops during the same stretch of time, despite making up just 4% of the population.

The latest report also found that police found a firearm on a suspect in only 1 of every 72 frisks.

“The majority of the time that those African Americans are stopped, they have no warrant, they have no drugs, they have no paraphernalia, they have no illegal weapons,” said Will Mega of the Human Rights Coalition 215.

Unity in the Community, Frontline Dads, Just Building Men, the NOMO Foundation, Poetry in Motion and Do4self are also part of the ad-hoc coalition asking Kenney to drop stop-and-frisk.

During his first run for mayor in 2015, Kenney campaigned on ending the practice, which several policing experts have said previously would be difficult to impossible to completely eliminate. Since taking office, the mayor has said he supports ending only unconstitutional stop-and-frisks.

“That is why we elected you to be our Mayor; because you understood this issue and agreed to fix it. However, when you took office, you forgot the promise you made, which is why we have collectively come together to hold you accountable and demand that you keep your promise to the citizens of Philadelphia,” reads a portion of a letter the coalition delivered to the administration on Tuesday.

In a statement, mayoral spokesperson Deana Gamble said, “All major cities employ pedestrian stops; the core issue is whether officers are employing that constitutionally.” She added that the decrease in overall stops since Kenney took office shows “incontrovertible evidence” that the administration is “making progress.”

In late June, during its final legislative session before summer recess, City Council passed a bill that will put a charter change question about stop-and-frisk on the November ballot.

Voters will be asked whether the Philadelphia Police Department should eliminate “unconstitutional” stop-and-frisks.

The ballot question is non-binding, making it a mostly symbolic measure to reaffirm that unlawful use of the police practice is prohibited.

During a budget hearing last month, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw told a council committee that she has no plans to end the use of stop-and-frisk within the department.

“We have to track it, we have to measure it, and ensure that we’re not abusing this tool that is available to us,” said Outlaw.

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