“Stop and frisk” has become a linchpin in the discussion about policing in Philadelphia. Two of the three Democrats running in this year’s primary — Anthony Williams and Alan Butkovitz — promise to abolish “stop and frisk.” When he ran in 2015, then-Councilmember Jim Kenney made the same promise.
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“Stop and frisk” was not abolished.
It is hard to hold politicians accountable to their promise to abolish "stop and frisk" because different people use the term to mean different things. There are there are three general uses for the term:
- A policing strategy that relies on increased interaction between police officers and pedestrians and compels police officers to seek opportunities to conduct stops. This was the infamous “stop and frisk” program in New York City during the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
- A constitutional right granted to police officers by the Supreme Court of the United States in Terry v. Ohio 1968 in which the court ruled that officers can stop and question a person if based on their experience they have reason for suspicion and they are allowed to frisk them if they think that the person might be armed.
- The practice of stopping pedestrians when reasonable suspicion cannot be articulated by the stopping officer — often referred to as unconstitutional stops or illegal “stop and frisk.”
To ensure that Philadelphia’s next mayor is held accountable to his specific position on “stop and frisk,” the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board asked candidates to clarify their position during endorsement meetings. Below, read excerpts from those interviews, which have been edited lightly for clarity. I annotated the comments for context, fact-checking and transparency.
Editorial writer Abraham Gutman: You want to abolish “stop and frisk.”
Anthony Williams: I do.
AG: Can you explain really quickly what you mean by that?
AW: No “stop and frisk,” no Terry stops, none of that.
AG: So you would give a directive that police officers in Philadelphia are not allowed to to stop someone upon reasonable suspicion and only upon ...
AW: That’s not the standard
AG: ... probable cause
AW: New York City does not use “stop and frisk.” The biggest city in this country does not use “stop and frisk.”
AG: That’s not true.
AW: That is true.
AG: They reduced dramatically ...
AW: They do not use “stop and frisk.” But we can differ, I guess.
Managing editor of opinion Sandra Shea: What do they use? What do you call what they use?
AW: They do a lot of different things to intervene and they do use probable cause, which is a much different standard than just “stop and frisk.” Look, you may be right, and I may be wrong but I’ll just suggest to you this that I’m not going to use “stop and frisk," whether New York does it or not. Period. OK? You can allow for someone to go through a community without sort of screening everyone walking through the community. So that’s gonna stop.
AG: Under you, as mayor, if a police officer stops someone upon reasonable suspicion as Terry v. Ohio, a Terry stop, will that ... means that you reneged on a promise? Because, to be fair, this mayor also said that he would stop "stop and frisk" and then he said ‘I mean something different.’
AW: What did the commissioner say the other day?
AG: Larry Krasner talked about “stop and frisk” in terms of ‘illegal “stop and frisk”’ so understanding exactly …
AW: What did the police commissioner said the other day?
AG: You tell me.
AW: The commissioner said that not using “stop and frisk” would be crazy, in essence. Which means that they are still using it.
AG: I’m not saying that they are not using it …
AW: All I’m saying to you is that, you and I can go back and forth to the process of words. What I’m suggesting to you is that I live in a neighborhood that people get stopped, inappropriately just because how they look like, what they are wearing, or where they are hanging out. That is going to stop. Probable cause, that standard that you are talking about, is a much higher standard, so those conversations are ones that I’m OK with. And by the way, the community is OK with that. Senior citizens who you’ll poll and say that they have a problem with “stop and frisk,” will also turn around and say were not …
Krasner is an example of that. He’s running into it today. His policies in my neighborhood are hugely popular in certain areas and hugely unpopular in other areas ... All I’m suggesting to you is that the words are not the issue for me, it’s the action and reaction to people who are just moving around their daily activity ... and may look like they don’t belong there but there is no reason to stop.
Abraham Gutman: When you ran last time, you took a very strong stance on “stop and frisk”. Both of your opponents are putting abolishing “stop and frisk” on the top of their campaign. So what did you learn in the last four years that they are not understanding today?
Jim Kenney: That Terry v. Ohio is the law of the land and that if you are moving on probable cause before you do a pedestrian stop, you are putting the officer in danger. You are putting the public in danger, because if a person has been reported to have a gun, you have to make an effort to see if they have a gun because there are so many guns out there. We’ve reduced unconstitutional pedestrian stops by 90 percent. On the raw numbers, it’s 260,000 or so less stops than we had back in 2015. We also put in place more strict rules and regulations on what officers have to report ... the incidents, what they did, why they did it, what the results of it was.
And also we have a situation where we have progressive discipline to officers that are continuing to do it regardless and that involves counseling, training, and then ultimately some type of punitary situation. I don’t have the numbers on that yet, but we are reducing them substantially. And I understand that any person that is unfairly stopped and embarrassed — and it’s embarrassing situation and you feel violated — I totally understand. I don’t totally understand it because it hasn’t happened to me, but I empathize with that person’s experience and we are working hard everyday to drive those numbers even further down. I don’t see either of my opponents ending Terry v. Ohio. And if you talk to the public defender, talk to Keir, if you talk to Michael Coard, who is one of the leading civil rights lawyers, both have told me that you are never going to end it. You are going to reduce the unconstitutional nature of it and the aggregate number of it. You are not ever going to stop it as a police tool.
Abraham Gutman: You say that your first legislation would be to abolish “stop and frisk,” which is something that I’m very interested in. I was wondering if you could define what “stop and frisk” is ... and how can City Council abolish it?
Alan Butkovitz: “Stop and frisk” is the identification of somebody that there is reasonable suspicion about them that they might be armed and the confrontation of that person and the search of that person. City Council doesn’t really have a rule in that. The police department is under the supervision of the mayor, the mayor can simply decree don’t do it. And you don’t have to take advantage of every power that the Supreme Court says that you can take advantage. For example, the mayor of Philadelphia decided that the police will not arrest people for small amounts of marijuana. The same power that gives him the authority to do that gives him the power to say we are not going to do “stop and frisk” anymore.
AG: So you will sign an executive order that says that a stop or a frisk can be done only upon probable cause?