On Thursday, City Council unanimously passed a charter amendment to prohibit unconstitutional stops in Philadelphia. The amendment will appear as a ballot question in the November election for voters to approve. The measure might seem symbolic and redundant (”unconstitutional” should already mean “prohibited”) but is an important step to recenter the discussion about stop-and-frisk — and about the cost to society from daily and routine police misconduct.
Stop-and-frisk has been a political flash point in Philadelphia. Many politicians, including the current mayor, have run on promises to “abolish stop-and-frisk” — often without explaining what they mean. But despite many promises, stop-and-frisk was not abolished. Last year, the Philadelphia Police Department stopped nearly 77,000 pedestrians — 70% of whom were Black.
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that officers are allowed to stop and question pedestrians if, based on their professional experience, they believe that “criminal activity may be afoot.” A frisk is allowed if there is reasonable suspicion that the pedestrian is armed.
In Philadelphia, police officers routinely stop people without reasonable suspicion. According to the latest report of the ACLU of Pennsylvania to the court as a part of a 2011 settlement regarding stop-and-frisk, in 16% of stops the officer did not articulate reasonable suspicion. That translates to nearly 12,000 instances in which a person’s constitutional rights were violated by police in 2019 alone. The city’s own audit of unconstitutional stops estimated that ”only 9,272 stops were made without reasonable suspicion.”
It is extremely rare for an officer in Philadelphia to find a gun during stop-and-frisk — less than 1% of stops, according to the ACLU analysis.
The staggering number of unconstitutional stops is a big improvement from the past. In 2012, more than 40% of stops lacked reasonable suspicion. Every unconstitutional stop is both a civil rights violation and potentially harms public safety — further eroding trust in police and rendering evidence inadmissible.
In January, months before police officers in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker introduced the charter amendment banning unconstitutional stop-and-frisk. By focusing on unconstitutional stops, Parker has focused the conversation in a practical way. If voters support the charter amendment but next year’s ACLU report shows persistence of unconstitutional stops, that means the Philadelphia Police Department is defying both the Constitution and the will of the people of Philadelphia.
We also need to focus on constitutional but unfair or unnecessary stops — especially since racial disparities in who is being stopped persist. Even through the end of March and April, when the police nearly halved the number of stops due to COVID-19, the percent of black pedestrians and drivers stopped went up.
About 40% of stops, according to the ACLU, are for minor violations like being in a park after hours. Any reason that is merely an excuse to stop Black Philadelphians should be considered illegitimate by the Police Department.
In the midst of the wave of protests against racial bias in policing, the city filed with the court an expert’s response to the ACLU’s report on racial bias in stop-and-frisk. While the response does not disagree with the overall conclusion that racial bias persists, it suggests methodological flaws in the analysis. It also includes logic that can only be defined as victim blaming. The expert suggests that one reason for the high rate of frisks of Black pedestrians could be that “Black detainees viewed the police with more wariness and/or skepticism” and officers “view this wariness as suspicion that the detainees were in possession of weapons.”
That kind of logic shows a failure to grasp the reckoning that this moment demands — and is unlikely to lead to the changes needed in policing in Philadelphia.
Stop-and-frisk is only one of the many hotbeds of unconstitutional policing in Philadelphia. Another is the city’s infamous narcotics unit, wrapped in one controversy after another to the point that a judge is now considering if any product of the unit’s work should be considered untainted.