Insider: Kenney Didn’t Break His Promise to End Stop-and-Frisk

Rashed: Saying the mayor didn't live up to his pledge is "gotcha" politics and needlessly divides us.

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Jim Kenney | Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

There’s a difference between the truth and facts. Facts are plain, simple and elementary: He said X; she said Y. The truth is more complicated, more nuanced, and requires more intelligence and maturity to understand.

Here’s the truth of what’s happening with Mayor Jim Kenney and stop-and-frisk: He is not breaking his campaign promise to end the police tactic, as some have claimed. In fact, all the other mayoral candidates would be in the exact same position as he is now if they had won the election.Inline image 1

During the mayoral primary last spring, the platform of all six Democratic candidates was remarkably similar. They committed to better education options for city schoolchildren, economic policies that would increase jobs for Philadelphians, and criminal justice reform, including fixing stop-and-frisk.

Over the course of 80 forums, debates and town halls, these issues were addressed again and again and again. Working as a campaign staffer, I had a front-row seat for every one of the events. What I can tell you, unequivocally, is that none of the candidates thought stop-and-frisk was a fair or equal policing strategy. Everyone, including eventual Democratic nominee Jim Kenney, was committed to fixing it.

In the landmark 1968 decision Terry v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a cop can stop a suspect on the street and frisk them without probable cause to arrest without violating the Fourth Amendment, so long as they have reasonable suspicion. “Reasonable suspicion,” of course, is open to interpretation. This begat police using, as a law enforcement tool, the tactic of stopping civilians legally. And so, before there was “stop-and-frisk,” the police department enforced a strategy called “pedestrian stops.” Prior to “pedestrian stops,” there were “pedestrian contacts.”

By pledging to end stop-and-frisk, Kenney was not promising to do away with the name of a police tactic, but to eliminate disrespectful, unconstitutional behavior by police against people of color. As Philly Mag’s David Gambacorta wrote last week, when former Mayor Michael Nutter was still in office, “black residents made up 68 percent of all stops and 77 percent of frisks in the first half of 2015.” A random sampling of almost 2,400 stops during that time period also found that “33 percent were made without any reasonable suspicion.”

To change this, the Philadelphia Police Department must narrowly define what “reasonable suspicion” means. Then the top brass must internally enforce the new definition and hold officers accountable for any stops that fall outside of that definition.

It’s equally important — if not more important — to prevent unconstitutional stops from happening in the first place. This requires sensitivity and cultural training for all police officers. We must address the underlying attitudes that lead to unconstitutional stops in the fist place in communities of color. For starters, perhaps police could use the same definition of “reasonable suspicion” for black and Latino neighborhoods that they use in white neighborhoods or at the Mummers Parade.

Saying the mayor didn’t live up to his promise to end stop-and-frisk is “gotcha” politics and needlessly divides us. It makes for a great sound bite, but that’s about it. Kenney has been in office for less than three months, and it will take time for him to make the changes that are laid out above. But already, he has taken steps to fix stop-and-frisk and reform a criminal justice system that is currently stacked against people of color:

  • The city, in collaboration with the police department, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Philadelphia Prison System, applied for a grant of up to $4 million to implement a plan to reduce the city’s prison population.
  • The mayor’s first budget address included a request for funding for body cameras for the police department, which Police Commissioner Richard Ross says can change the way cops interact with the public.
  • Kenney’s budget would continue to fund the Police Advisory Commission ($500,000 annually for the next three years) and add one additional staffer — the former Deputy Integrity and Accountability Officer of Public Safety at the Managing Director’s Office.
  • Kenney and Ross have promised to attend meetings with Black Lives Matter activists and community groups in order to discuss how the police and residents can have better interactions.
  • Under Kenney, the city has begun implementing the city’s new “Ban the Box” law, which strengthens the original legislation by creating new guidelines and increasing penalties for non-compliance.

Also, when he was on City Council, Kenney pushed through a bill that decriminalized marijuana. These are clear examples of criminal justice reforms that are intended to eliminate the disproportionate effects many laws and police tactics have on people of color.

From his campaign to the first few months of his administration, Kenney has not changed. His criminal justice policies have been thoughtful, inclusive and focused on fairness, with an eye toward making the system more equitable for people of color.

Mustafa Rashed is the President & CEO of Bellevue Strategies, a government relations, advocacy and consulting firm. He is a member of Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board, and he was the campaign manager of Doug Oliver’s 2015 mayoral run.