Amid rising concerns over an unchecked homicide rate in Philadelphia, City Council is struggling to find ways to address violent crime. This culminated with the targeting of two law enforcement officers who were shot under the cover of fireworks during Philadelphia’s annual “Welcome America” 4th of July celebration on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
This led some on city council to again ponder the use of “Stop and Frisk” as a police tactic to get illegal firearms off the streets. This requires a discussion of what “Stop and Frisk” really is and why it is not so much a program or a policy of political leaders, but a proven law enforcement tactic upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968.
On July 5th, City Council returned to City Hall with unified messaging that seemingly set themselves apart from the Mayor, District Attorney, and Police Commissioner — an intent to “do something” about the city’s violent crime problem. Council President Darrell Clarke used the opportunity to reiterate his support for halting the ongoing rise in violent crime rates in the city. “We will provide the necessary funding; be it support for organizations that are fighting gun violence or be it support for law enforcement to give them the appropriate tools to deal with these issues. We cannot give up. We cannot let them win,” Clarke said.
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For the first time in a decade, Council discussed implementing “stop and frisk,” which was implemented during the Nutter administration following a similar effort in New York City during the Bloomberg administration. Shortly after taking office, Mayor Jim Kenney halted the process, calling it unconstitutional after a judge in New York ruled against their department’s alleged quota system — a part of the procedure that Philadelphia’s stop-and-frisk program did not include.
A full week (and several homicides) after the City Council session, District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose declining prosecution rates for illegal firearms arrests have been widely cited as a primary driver of the city’s increased murder rates, was joined by the three council members who support him in coming out against “stop and frisk”. Speaking at his weekly “gun violence briefing” on Monday, Krasner made a distinction between what he deems legal and “illegal stop and frisk,” arguing that it is racial profiling. This sentiment was echoed by progressive Council members Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier. In a statement, the three wrote: “We need to be aggressive and courageous in our approach to gun violence prevention, but that doesn’t mean repeating the mistakes of our past.”
These statements by Krasner and his supporters in Council are seemingly intended to convince their constituents that “stop and frisk” is either a municipal policy or program to be debated. The truth, which has been taught in every law schools and police academy throughout the United States over the last four generations; which is that “Stop and Frisk” describes the legal process in where a law enforcement officer can stop a suspect they reasonably suspect has a weapon, and search them for it for the safety of the officer and community they patrol.
So what is “stop and frisk”?
In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio, codifying that “stop and frisk” did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court recognized that stops and frisks are significantly less intrusive than full-blown searches and seizures and that standards must be developed for stops and frisks. In Terry, the Court ruled that officers have the right to stop and pat down a suspect if they have reasonable suspicion that the person may be armed, which is the basis of its current proposed use in current-day Philadelphia and when it started being discussed as a political talking point in New York City during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.
The basis for “Stop and Frisk” is officer safety; therefore, if police have articulated a flexible set of escalating responses beginning with an articulable suspicion and extending to a reason to believe that the suspect is armed, in a city like Philadelphia where the police are of the most racially diverse in the city, how could it be racial profiling?
If arrests are made and illegal weapons seized as a result of these tactics, it’s hard to argue that the tactic itself is unlawful or ineffective.
The debate over “stop and frisk” as a program or policy makes anyone educated in the law scratch their head. “Stop and frisk” is not something initiated by a politician and cannot be started or stopped by order or decree. “Stop and Frisk” is merely a term used to classify reasonable suspicion stops governed by Terry v. Ohio, and are the same part of a law enforcement officer’s essential toolkit as the Miranda warning, patrol car, or uniform. If political appointees order police to stop conducting these stops or worse, officers stop doing them out of fear that they may be wrongfully terminated or prosecuted as a result, crime goes up.
The truth is, any disparities in race reflected by those arrested and incarcerated for illegal weapons gleaned by a “stop and frisk” presents a “chicken and egg” argument that is not being addressed by the policies of our Mayor, City Council, District Attorney, or Police Commissioner. Under the Patrol Service Area (PSA) concept brought to Philadelphia by Commissioner Charles Ramsey, a member of the Obama administration’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing”, more police officers are deployed to areas reporting higher crime instead of having patrol beats assigned based on population density. So if law enforcement officers are assigned to communities of color based on increased calls for police and reported crimes from that community, more members of that community will be subject to police tactics like “stop and frisk”.
If arrests are made and illegal weapons seized as a result of these police tactics, it’s hard to argue that the tactic itself is unlawful or ineffective. This brings us a more complex question as to why politicians continually blame law enforcement for the fact that, in Philadelphia, more people of color are likely to be both victims and perpetrators of crime instead of addressing the factors that lead to criminality — including the poor state of the city’s economy, family, and education system.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME