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March 30, 2023

Stop-and-frisk: A clear failure of public safety policy

Activism Stop-And-Frisk

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If you’ve been following the mayoral and city council elections in Philadelphia, you know that one of the biggest issues facing candidates is how to deal with the rise in gun violence over the past few years. The truth is, there are no easy answers when it comes to making sure that every Philadelphian is safe. But even as we search for answers to stem the violence, we must have an honest conversation about which public safety policies do and do not work.

Despite what you might hear from some candidates for mayor and city council, one policing tactic that has proven a failure time and again in bolstering public safety is so-called stop-and-frisk.

Stop-and-frisk is shorthand for “investigative detention” – it means that a police officer can detain on the spot any person that a police officer suspects to be engaged in illegal behavior and then “frisk” or pat down that person if the officer believes the person is armed. In Philadelphia, stop-and-frisk became a prominent tool used by police during Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

At the start of the Nutter administration, Philadelphia police nearly doubled the number of pedestrian stops, to over a quarter of a million in 2009. According to civil rights lawyers, at least half of those stops failed to meet the legal standard. Almost none of those stops found guns, or even resulted in arrest. Philadelphia police were stopping tens of thousands of innocent Philadelphians every month.

The increased use of this failed and discriminatory policy led to a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and private civil rights lawyers at Kairys Rudovsky Messing Feinberg & Lin on behalf of a number of Philadelphia residents who had been wrongfully profiled for a stop-and-frisk by police.

In 2011, the city settled the lawsuit and agreed to reform its practices under the supervision of a federal judge. The agreement also allows the civil rights lawyers and the ACLU of Pennsylvania to monitor police data about the use of stop-and-frisk. That agreement continues today.

The data that the ACLU of Pennsylvania has monitored over the past decade uncovered some key realities about the use of stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia.

Here are the facts.

Stop-and-frisk very rarely uncovers guns or other dangerous weapons. Over most of the past decade, data we’ve reviewed shows that police found a firearm in less than 1% of pedestrian stops.

But stop-and-frisk is not just inefficient–it unfairly targets and harasses communities of color, especially Black men. Even as the overall number of pedestrian stops has dropped over the past decade, racial disparities persist. Black and brown Philadelphians are more likely to be stopped by the police than white residents in every part of the city, and that disparity is the most extreme in the parts of the city with the fewest Black and brown residents.

At best, stop-and-frisk is a scary inconvenience. At its worst, stop-and-frisk can turn deadly. The average Philadelphia pedestrian stop lasts 13 minutes. That’s long enough to make you late for work, or wherever you are going. If the person who is stopped resists or argues with the police —and sometimes even when they don’t— the situation can escalate into violence. Here and across the country, pedestrian stops too often result in the unjustified and deadly use of force by police.

Looking at the more than ten years of data about the use of stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia, there is no question that there are better ways to prevent gun violence across the city than recycling this failed tactic.

For those candidates hoping to win over voters and be elected to positions of leadership in Philadelphia for the next four years, it is incumbent on you to lead boldly and creatively.

That means rejecting stop-and-frisk as the discriminatory and fruitless policing policy that it has proven to be.

It means investing in communities, jobs programs, and support for those struggling to get by.

It means allowing police to invest their time and resources in stopping and solving crime instead of wandering the streets and harassing any member of the public holding an open beer container or hanging out on a street corner for just a little too long.

It means being the kind of leader that Philadelphia needs right now, finding new solutions and discarding the failures of the past. Make no mistake, this city is stronger than the recent surge in violent crime. We can get past this troubling trend.

Together, we must figure out what will work to make every resident safer and more secure in a way that does not make scapegoats and targets of our Black and brown communities.

And we must reject what we know does not work.

Mary Catherine Roper is the former deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and is co-counsel in Bailey v. City of Philadelphia.

Frederick Bates is an ACLU of Pennsylvania member and community ambassador.