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Philly mayoral candidates for the first time debated crime, policing, and stop-and-frisk. Here are 4 big takeaways.

Nine Democrats running for mayor appeared on stage at a forum on how to prevent gun violence in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia mayoral candidates express their views on solving the gun violence issues during a forum at St. Joseph's University on Jan. 19,  2023. Cherelle Parker (left) answers a question. Rebecca Rhynhart is right.
Philadelphia mayoral candidates express their views on solving the gun violence issues during a forum at St. Joseph's University on Jan. 19, 2023. Cherelle Parker (left) answers a question. Rebecca Rhynhart is right.Read moreCharles Fox / Charles Fox / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia mayoral candidates for the first time debated what all of them say is the No. 1 issue facing the city: gun violence and public safety.

Some said the city needs to expand mental health supports and strengthen outreach to young people. A few said they wouldn’t retain the leadership of the police department. And all — except one — said they oppose stop-and-frisk.

Nine Democrats running ahead of the May primary election appeared on stage Thursday night at a forum hosted by two City Council members at St. Joseph’s University. The event, the second major forum of the primary cycle, was intended to probe the candidates’ positions on how to prevent gun violence.

The rate of shootings in the city skyrocketed in 2020 and drove an unprecedented number of homicides over the past three years. Voters and residents will expect the next mayor to steer the city out of the crisis, and Democrats running for the nomination will try to strike a balance between controlling the urgent problem and addressing societal factors that drive it.

Here are four of our biggest takeaways from the two-hour forum:

No candidate, including Gym, wants to defund police

Every former Council member on the stage — Helen Gym, Cherelle Parker, Allan Domb, Derek Green, and Maria Quiñones Sánchez — voted in 2020 to cancel a proposed increase to the police budget amid mass racial justice protests that came in wake of the murder of George Floyd.

But it’s Gym, the most progressive candidate, whom rivals have tried to tie to the movement to reduce police funding and divert it to other services. Gym has been critical of the police department, and in 2020 tweeted that a Minneapolis plan to dismantle its force showed “how transformative change can happen.”

» READ MORE: From defund to refund: Why Democrats are shifting their tone on policing

She said Thursday she wanted “to set the record straight about police funding.”

“Now is the time to stabilize police funding. It is not the time to cut,” Gym said. “A tough-on-crime public safety initiative also includes all the things: housing, mental health supports, education, jobs, and infrastructure that literally prevents crime. These investments should be in addition to policing and not in lieu of them.”

Several candidates said they’d reexamine how the police department spends its nearly $800 million budget. Former City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said she’d prioritize “civilianizing” the department, or moving more officers from administrative work to patrol. Quiñones Sánchez said she’d study bloated police overtime usage.

And ShopRite proprietor Jeff Brown, who has said police officers feel unsupported by political figures, said he would oppose increasing funding to the department.

“We have enough money in the police budget,” he said. “I’m not for cutting it, but … this city is so poorly managed, and the police are included in it.”

Parker flirts with stop-and-frisk

During a rapid-fire round where candidates were supposed to answer questions with a “yes” or “no,” the contenders were asked if they support stop-and-frisk.

Every candidate said no — except Parker. She briefly paused, then said: “The constitutional use of stop-and-frisk is a tool law enforcement needs to protect and serve us.”

It’s not the first time she’s embraced a mixed stance on the controversial police tactic, in which officers stop and sometimes search pedestrians over suspicious behavior. The practice has long been considered racially biased, and stops were often performed without legal justification.

» READ MORE: Bring back stop-and-frisk? Some on Philly City Council say the tactic merits another look

In July, Parker stood alongside Council President Darrell L. Clarke as he called for the city to revisit the practice. In 2020, she championed symbolic legislation to add language to the City Charter banning unconstitutional stops and frisks.

More questions than answers on clearance rates

Candidates were asked how to improve police clearance rates, or the percentage of cases that are considered solved. The Police Department’s clearance rates — 23% for shootings and 47% for homicides — are below goals the department set for itself.

There were few concrete plans to bolster investigations.

Rhynhart, Parker, and Brown each said the city’s forensics unit is in a state of disrepair and needs more support. None mentioned that the department is already set to receive a $50 million cash infusion from the state to support improved forensic and digital policing systems.

Green said he’d prioritize better collaboration between police and the District Attorney’s Office. Domb said his police department would “focus on a small amount of people” committing a plurality of crime in the city. Gym said the city needs to “re-center” on young people and provide stronger resources to children.

An awkward question on Commissioner Outlaw

During the rapid-fire section, candidates were asked to answer yes or no: Would they retain Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw?

Jeff Brown responded, “That’s loaded,” briefly paused, and then said, “I can’t guarantee that. No.”

Domb, Gym, and retired Judge James DeLeon said yes. Green and Warren Bloom Sr. said no.

Then it went a little off the rails. Parker said “no personnel decisions on the campaign trail.” Then Rhynhart and Quiñones Sánchez followed, also refusing to answer yes or no.

“This is about policy,” Rhynhart said.