One of the most memorable things I learned in high school came not from my (legendary) English teacher but from my football coach. One day at practice, he was trying to explain what he wanted from his defensive ends. "You need to rush the quarterback," he said, "with reckless abandon, but under control." A few of the players snickered, even if in hindsight it was a most clever oxymoron -- and a rule that applies to a lot of situations off the gridiron.
Take the battle against urban crime. We want our cops to get the bad guys off the streets with reckless abandon -- but somehow under control. If the money existed (which it doesn't), you could hire a gazillion new cops and put them on every street corner in the leftover APCs from Dick Cheney's various wars, but that much policing is what might accurately be called a "police state." Once in a while you'll read about a city that gets it right, that uses smart, high-tech policing to lower crime while winning respect from the public. But people write stories about these police departments precisely because such cities are so rare.
Philadelphia's not there yet. The good news is -- or was -- that we have a new mayor, Jim Kenney, who seemed to get it during his 2015 campaign. Indeed, one of his biggest selling points -- heavily promoted by the Kenney campaign -- was that he was going to put the kibosh on so-called stop-and-frisk, the stepped-up searches for weapons that disproportionately target blacks and Latinos (not just in Philadelphia but anywhere it's been tried). The technique has rarely netted criminals but often sparked increased distrust between the police and the neighborhoods that they serve.
As Politifact Pennsylvania recently reported, this is what candidate Kenney told Newsworks when he was trolling for Philadelphia's votes in April 2015: "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."
Today, Jim Kenney is the 99th mayor of the city of Philadelphia. And the cops under his command are still pretty good at the reckless abandon part. Under control? Not always. Consider the appalling allegations of Nicol Newman, a 48-year-old social worker with a spotless record who said that two plainclothes detectives cuffed her and took her away for a night in jail after she refused to let them in her home, apparently lacking a proper search warrant.
That's one anecdote, but the data is also damning:
More than five years after a class action lawsuit was filed against the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) for illegally stopping and frisking thousands of people, little has changed in the City of Brotherly Love. According to new findings from the ACLU and Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP, officers in Philadelphia are still making racially-biased stops and frisks, in violation of the terms of a 2011 consent decree.
During the first half of 2015, one-third of all stops and 42 percent of all frisks were conducted without a valid reason, and the vast majority of the people searched were black. Police targeted people for minor offenses that state and federal laws do not consider stop-worthy, such as loitering, panhandling, verbal altercations, and "obstructing" sidewalks. Officers also selected people who matched vague descriptions of suspects or happened to be in high-crime neighborhoods.
Out of 794 illegal stops, 71 percent targeted black people, who were also subjected to 77 percent of illegal frisks.
And there is little evidence to suggest that the controversial practice was successful. Only 42 of 2,380 stops yielded contraband, with a total of six guns recovered. Only four guns were found during the 326 reported frisks. Researchers who conducted a smaller case study of 38 times people were frisked because an officer noticed a "bulge" also concluded that no weapons were found.
That was then. But now Mayor Kenney is a lot more equivocal about his actual policy, now that he's in charge and has the new police commissioner that he appointed, Richard Ross. "I never said stop-and-frisk was going to end entirely," Kenney told Al Dia recently. "What we are going to stop is the random stopping of people, Latinos and African Americans, on the street and the cop asking, 'What are you doing here?' "
Actually, Mr. Mayor, you did kind of say it was going to end entirely; at least, that was the impression of a lot of folks who cast their ballots for you last May.
But today Kenney has other priorities. It's like every mayor gets in office to do his One Great Thing. So Ed Rendell Balanced the Budget...but watched the schools go to hell. John Street Towed Abandoned Cars...but watched his administration go to hell. Today, Mayor Kenney is working non-stop on his One Great Thing -- Taxing the Hell Out of Soda and Funding Pre-K (which may not be the greatest thing, but we'll save that for another time.) He needs to start multi-tasking.
Because the crime situation seems to be bleeding from both ends. While there hasn't been a concerted push on civil liberties, at the same time the city's murder rate has risen somewhat. Every night, it seems, you can visit Philly.com and read a heartbreaking piece like this one by my colleague Jenice Armstrong:
THE MOTHER of the 18-year-old murdered Saturday night in West Philly by a stray bullet was among the first to show up to Thursday's antiviolence rally at 55th Street and Baltimore Avenue - but she was more there in body than in her right mind.
Zykia Clavon was understandably grief-stricken and inconsolable as she tried to grasp that Nadje Steedley - the pretty girl with the bright smile who enjoyed doing her friends' hair and makeup - really was gone.
As ministers from local churches prayed, and antiviolence activists called on residents to cooperate with the police and rebuild their communities, Clavon held her hands up to the sky as tears ran down her cheeks. She collapsed onto the sidewalk, then struggled to her feet, as if to stand in witness to the tragic ending to her daughter's short life. The horror of it was all over her.
"Oh, my God, they killed my baby. Oh, my God, they killed my baby. Oh, my God, they killed my baby," Clavon wailed as she flailed about. "Oh, my God, it hurts so bad."
Whatever happens with this soda thing, Mayor Kenney should find the proper venue and lay out for the people of Philadelphia, all in one place, his plan for reducing murder and other crimes while keeping his campaign promises on civil liberties. The semantics games of 2015 and 2016 were not a good start, but that damage can be undone if he and Ross can convince us that they're bringing Philadelphia crime fighting further into the 21st Century than it is now.