Mayor Jim Kenney Credit: Chris Montgomery/Billy Penn

Mayor Jim Kenney campaigned on the premise that the city should end the practice of stopping pedestrians on the street and frisking them without justifiable suspicion.

In a transition report released by his administration Tuesday, dozens of goals are laid out for the new mayor’s first year in office, from transportation to immigrant services to public safety. Among those compiled by his transition team is a goal regarding “pedestrian investigations” — AKA stop and frisk — with an end date of July 1.

It says the administration hopes to “retrain officers on what constitutes reasonable suspicion and promote accountability for officers and commanders.” That sort of sounds like backing away from ending stop and frisk; while the act of arresting pedestrians on the street won’t be banned, his administration says it’s still committed to taking steps to be sure the controversial practice of “stop-and-frisk” does.

The scope of the problem

The transition team details problems with stop and frisk in Philadelphia that were raised multiple times by the American Civil Liberties Union, and says the “Philadelphia Police Department has begun to make policy changes to improve community relations.” 

The report says the police department has a reporting structure that requires officers state the suspicion that justified the stop they made, and that report is then reviewed by commanding officers and district captains. Officers who are making stops without legal merit will be “retrained” on the guidelines. The police department didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Those policies that are meant to teach officers how to constitutionally stop pedestrians sound softer than the premise Kenney campaigned on. He was quoted in an April 2015 Newsworks story saying that if he were to be elected mayor, “stop and frisk will end in Philadelphia, no question.”

“[I] would like to work with Commissioner Ramsey as well as the FOP to find a responsible way to bring that practice to an end,” he said at the time. “Given his rising star on the national scene, it’s likely that Commissioner Ramsey may choose to move onto a new position, and if that’s the case, I’ll work with successor to reach the same end.”

Former Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who implemented controversial practice of stop-and-frisk after Mayor Michael Nutter hired him, retired in January and was replaced by Richard Ross, who worked directly under Ramsey.

What Kenney says today

Kenney’s spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said the mayor’s stance on stop-and-frisk hasn’t changed.

“Early in the Nutter administration, they decided to use stop and frisks as a major tactic for fighting crime,” Hitt said in an email. “That is not the policy of this administration. Instead Mayor Kenney is focused on community policing, which includes training our officers so that any stops they make are constitutional and respectful.”

The practice of stop-and-frisk is legal based on a 1968 Supreme Court ruling in Terry v. Ohio that said police can stop and frisk a person so long as the officer has reasonable suspicion that the person has either just committed a crime or is about to commit a crime.

Since then, it’s become a political issue as much as it is a police issue. Nutter took office in 2008, after campaigning on the promise to start using of stop-and-frisk as Philly’s murder rate was climbing. He said he supported the use of stop-and-frisk — a popular crime-fighting tool at the time — in getting guns off the streets, but said he wouldn’t tolerate the violation of civil liberties in the process. Violent crime dropped dramatically during Nutter’s time in office.

But overarching policies regarding how officers should correctly go about stopping a pedestrian weren’t formalized at the time, so there aren’t policies to specifically reverse. Instead, Kenney’s team plans to prioritize other crime-fighting measures like focused deterrence, a method used by Philadelphia Police that identifies likely offenders and uses programming to prevent them from committing crimes.

“Focus[ed] deterrence in that area in South Philadelphia, west of Broad Street, has worked wonders to bring down the shootings, the murders, and the lawlessness,” Kenney told Philly Mag in February. “I would give [District Attorney] Seth Williams and the Police Department what they needed to begin to expand to other difficult and tough neighborhoods.”

Hitt said rather than using stop-and-frisk as a major policing tactic, Kenney’s administration is focused on a “community policing” model and training officers to conduct interactions with pedestrians in a constitutional manner.

The New York Police Department instituted similar changes to its stop-and-frisk protocols last year so that police are barred conducting searches based on race or merely people making “furtive movements.” Similar to Philly’s new policy, police in New York must “be able to articulate facts establishing a minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.”

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 about the use of stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia, saying it unfairly targeted minority Philadelphians who had done nothing wrong. The lawsuit showed that more than 250,000 pedestrians were stopped the year prior, compared to just over 100,000 in 2005. The vast majority of the stops did not lead to an arrest.

The city settled with the ACLU, and the police department was required by the court to release data relevant to the use of stop-and-frisk to show progress was being made. However, in 2014, the ACLU found that despite having four years to improve practices, nearly 40 percent of the about 200,000 stops were still being made without reasonable suspicion.

Less than a year later, Kenney and his two biggest competitors in the 2015 mayoral primary all vowed that if they were elected mayor, they would end the controversial practice of stop-and-frisk.

The new mayor caught some flak during the campaign for his stance on policing, as it was a clear diversion from comments he made while a sitting city councilman. In 1997, Kenney was asked by The Inquirer about police infringing on civil liberties and said this: “Civil liberties? We’re not protecting the rights of people who are working and paying their taxes and raising their children properly. They can’t go out of their houses after sundown. How crazy is that?”

He’s since then changed his tune, and told he was “embarrassed” by those comments and characterized his stance at the time as “incorrect.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.