So is the "stop and frisk" debate about crime policy or just politics as usual?
Former City Councilman Michael Nutter's proposal to use "stop, question and frisk" police tactics as part of his crime plan has come under fire from his rival mayoral candidates in recent days - not long after he started rising in public-opinion polls.
All the other candidates have criticized the plan, which would train police officers to look for behavior that suggests someone might be carrying an illegal firearm. State Rep. Dwight Evans and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah have said it could unfairly target African-Americans.
Evans yesterday held a news conference to bash Nutter's plan.
"I believe strongly you do not break the law to enforce the law," said Evans, who appeared with a former Philadelphia police officer who also opposed the plan.
Evans said he would try to target "straw purchasers" and push to enact stricter laws to get illegal guns off the streets. He denied that his attack was politically motivated, saying, "I think it's high time to have this discussion."
In addition, a political-action committee called One Step Closer unleashed an ad yesterday claiming that Nutter would suspend constitutional rights in some neighborhoods, "giving police new powers to detain and search anyone at any time without any legal cause." (See related story below: "A bigger role for PACs.")
Nutter accused his opponents of playing politics. He said his plan is the best way to make Philly's streets safe. He promised ongoing training of officers and "vigorous oversight," and also pledged to work with community groups and the American Civil Liberties Union on implementing the plan.
"The sad part of this whole debate is while the candidates spend their time inaccurately attacking my proposal, they have not offered any other plan that will aggressively stop the violence in Philadelphia and seize illegal weapons," he said.
According to a recent Daily News/Keystone poll, "stop, question and frisk" is supported by a majority of voters. In an April survey of 364 registered Democrats, 61 percent said they strongly favored or somewhat favored stop-and-frisk.
Criminologist Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at Penn, defended "stop, question and frisk" yesterday.
Sherman noted that the Supreme Court has upheld the right of officers to "look for behaviors that indicate that a person may be carrying a gun."
He also cited studies of targeted police patrols - which used "stop, question and frisk" tactics - in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, saying that the approach helped reduce shootings and homicides.
"A, it's legal; B, it works," he said. "There's no evidence that these tactics lead to racial profiling. The tactics that have been tested in those cities have never led to any complaints."
Larry Frankel, legislative director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said he hadn't spoken to Nutter about "stop, question and frisk" and didn't want to pass judgment on it.
He added that "if he indeed is elected, we would seek to meet with him and his policy-makers to try and persuade them to do nothing unconstitutional or [that] would invite us into lawsuits."
Fattah, who has aggressively attacked Nutter's proposal in recent debates, wants to "designate specially trained patrol officers in each police district to go after illegal guns and the criminals who are most likely to use them."
Fattah spokesman Solomon Jones said Fattah's proposal would differ from Nutter's.
"There will be a small number of police officers who would be specially trained to go after illegal guns," he said. "They would also be trained to investigate individuals when they have probable cause."