A group convened in Chinatown Thursday night to discuss public safety and the mayoral election (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

A group of Chinatown residents, business owners, and community development leaders came together Thursday evening to discuss gun violence and public safety, with the goal of crafting questions for the candidates jostling to be Philadelphia’s next mayor.

The conversation was pulled in several directions, with priorities ranging from bringing back stop and frisk to improving education access.

Several people argued that the police department needs more support, in the form of increased funding and autonomy on how to operate. Others brought up the need for more investment in the city’s youth, noting it might take decades to truly turn things around. 

Organized by WHYY, the CeaseFirePA Education Fund, and Billy Penn in advance of the “100th Mayor: Restoring Safety Forum” scheduled for March 1, the listening session is part of “Every Voice, Every Vote,” a collaborative project managed by the Lenfest Institute and supported by the William Penn Foundation. 

The meeting was led by Eric Marsh, Sr, WHYY’s Community Outreach Organizer and manager of the News & Information Community Exchange (N.I.C.E.), a local mutual aid news collaborative. Dan Tsao, a N.I.C.E. partner who publishes the Metro Chinese News daily paper and runs the restaurant EMei, co-hosted the session.

PPD Ofc. Michael Vu, who said he was a Chinatown beat cop, was one of two officers in the room. Prompted to share a question he had for the next mayor, he asked simply, “When are we going to be able to do our job?”

He and his colleague on the force, Ofc. Cynthia Chung, who said she works in a South Philadelphia Police District, seemed eager to return to some semblance of stop and frisk. The policing tactic has been deemed unconstitutional. Cherelle Parker has called for a “constitutional” version of stop and frisk, so far the sole candidate to support the practice by name. 

Vu acknowledged that some officers “mess it up,” but thought that didn’t justify stopping what he deemed effective policing. 

“We’re not profiling,” Chung said, arguing that criminal profiling — a technique used by law enforcement to identify offenders — has been miscast as racially discriminatory policing.

In 2009, the ACLU found that Black and Latino Philadelphians made up nearly 90% of stops, despite making up 50% of the population at the time. The law firm that negotiated a settlement with the department, establishing in 2011 a federal consent decree called the Bailey agreement, noted that “for every 100 frisks, only 1 firearm was found.” The agreement didn’t ban stop and frisk encounters, but required PPD to track such events in a public database

Non-policing approaches to stemming violence were also part of the discussion. 

Keano Tsao, a high schooler, named lack of education access, poverty, and the COVID pandemic as root causes of the crisis of violence the city has faced. 

Tsao cited high recidivism rates across the U.S. as reason to embrace approaches other than arrests and incarceration, especially when it comes to juveniles, his peers. 

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, you’re 14, you’re a kid, you’re gonna be good tomorrow,’” said Tsao, “but you also can’t just lock them up for 15 years because that’s not going to work either.”

John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, suggested asking other candidates whether they agreed with Derek Green that Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw needed to be replaced. Green outlined that step as part of his general public safety platform earlier this week.   

The moderators could phrase the question, Chin said, as: “If changing how we police is part of the solution, does it require a change at the leadership level to make that happen?”

The group was also asked about a problem that predates Outlaw: the slowdown in police recruitment. 

Session participants generally agreed that the perception of the police has played a part in recruitment struggles, a reputation that was attributed to high-profile instances of police misconduct and brutality.

“I’ve been on a job for so long [that] when I came on, my community in South Philly, they loved me. Because I’m here to help,” Chung said. “But now, oh no they don’t love me, they hate me.”

Some in the listening session made it clear they think more money should be headed PPD’s way. 

“We need a strong mayor, to address all the concerns, to fund the police department adequately,” said Adam Xu, chairman of the Asian American Licensed Beverage Association of Philadelphia. 

For Chin, of the PCDC, the question comes down to the fiscal and institutional support youth are given for educational and extracurricular success. 

“How much money is the mayor willing to invest in Philadelphia’s children’s future?” he said. “Because if they get an investment, then you can have change.”

The question was a point of clear consensus in the room, even as Chin’s comments finished with a heavy dose of caution at the prospect of one mayor making a decade-spanning difference on this front. 

“It’s going to take a generation for change … Politicians have to get voted in every two to four years. They’re not going to have the patience.”

This story is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. Learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters here.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...