Mayoral Candidates Fail to Articulate Plans for Criminal Justice Reform

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Four mayoral candidates present their platform to Working Family party members at Arch Street United Methodist Church, March 7th 2015. Photo: Kenneth Lipp

By Dustin Slaughter

“The mayor can make a change,” an impassioned Reverend Greg Holston told a packed Arch Street United Methodist Church Saturday afternoon, which incidentally coincided with the 50th anniversary of Selma, Alabama’s civil rights march. “The new mayor can change this policy on the first day he is in the office. He can sign an executive order to rid this town of stop-and-frisk!” Holston thundered.

The audience erupted into cheers and applause as Holston left the pulpit to allow four mayoral candidates – State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, former councilman Jim Kenney, Doug Oliver, and Judge Nelson Diaz – to address the Working Families audience.

What came after Holston’s concrete demand, however, was anything but inspirational.

Senator Williams said of the Philadelphia Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy: “It’s not only unfair, it doesn’t work. The facts support that.”

Nelson Diaz said community policing and, specifically, expanding police athletic league programs, are avenues to remedy the dearth of trust between residents and law enforcement.

Doug Oliver recounted his experience with stop-and-frisk in earlier years, when officers disrupted Oliver and a group of friends while they played basketball. He supports an independent police review board, body cameras, and a way to “streamline” ex-inmates into job programs.

Jim Kenney called the practice “unconscionable”, adding that it erodes healthy relationships officers have with communities. To his credit, while in council, he drafted and fought for passage of legislation that decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, and over strong objections from Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who eventually relented. During his tenure in council, he supported so-called ‘ban the box’ legislation that forbids employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history before the first interview. At yesterday’s forum, Kenney, like every other candidate present, said he supports an independent police review board. He also wants better officer training, from the patrol level up to supervisory positions – which is something an upcoming Justice Department review may call for anyway.

None would heed the Reverend’s call for bold leadership on the issue, which, as recent numbers clearly show, continues to disproportionately plague people of color in Philadelphia, and which continues to indicate how largely ineffectual it is as a tool to fight violent crime.

Late last month, The Declaration’s Kenneth Lipp reported on new statistics released by the ACLU as part of a Consent Decree first imposed on the police department in June 2011. The report highlighted a 6% improvement in reasonable suspicion for stops. The ACLU’s latest also showed, however, that the number of both stops and frisks were still largely of  African Americans and Latinos. According to Lipp:

With the delivery of the 2013 report in December, which showed that 76% of the stops were of minorities (African-Americans and Latinos) as were 79% of frisks, the plaintiffs threatened that “unless there is a dramatic change in practices, we will be compelled to seek judicial relief.”

The metrics used by the Decree’s auditors – which were agreed upon by the ACLU, police department, and U.S. District Court of Eastern Pennsylvania – also pointed out stop-and-frisk’s highly-questionable efficacy in terms of reducing violent crime:

[G]iven the extraordinarily low rate of recovery of weapons or any contraband in frisk cases, there is good reason to believe that none of the factors cited as establishing reasonable suspicion are good indicators of a person in possession of a weapon.

To be clear, all four candidates claim they would “end” or “stop” stop-and-frisk if elected. So did then-candidate Mayor Michael Nutter. Why not give the people of Philadelphia a clear explanation about how you intend to do so, instead of vague promises?

Expanding PAL programs won’t stop the indignities and constitutional violations of stop-and-frisk, Mr. Diaz. And neither will body cameras, Mr. Oliver. And Mr. Kenney, a politician who took on the police lobby by pushing for marijuana decriminalization, should be up to the task of taking that first step by promising an executive order to impose a moratorium, if not outright ban, on stop-and-frisk.

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