BY: MALCOLM BURNLEY
Some media outlets described Friday’s town hall on stop-and-frisk as “raucous” or “chaos.” But that’s only a half-truth. Sure, there were emotional eruptions by the audience, defiant answers from the police commissioner, and angry constituents jeering the mayor. But in spite of the high tensions, the event co-hosted by the interfaith group POWER and Techbook Online largely did what it set out to do: clarify where each of the key players stands on stop-and-frisk. Not that audience members necessarily got the answers they wanted.
Roughly 400 people crammed into New Vision United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia to listen to two moderators question several panel members, including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Pennsylvania ACLU deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper, City Solicitor Sozi Tulante and Police Advisory Commission executive director Kelvyn Anderson. Journalist-activist Chris Norris asked Kenney the first question: Was he willing to apologize, on behalf of the city, for the number of unconstitutional stops made of Philadelphians (estimated to be about one-third of the roughly 200,000 stops made by police a year, according to the latest data)?
“Understand the fact that I’ve been there since January 4th of 2016. Taking that into account, anyone who’s had an unconstitutional interaction with a police officer, I do apologize for that,” Kenney said.
Many critics at the town hall accused Kenney of backtracking on a campaign pledge to end stop-and-frisk. Over the past few months, Kenney has vehemently argued that his stance hasn’t changed since March of 2015. That’s when, in the middle of the mayor’s race, he released a policy paper detailing how he would change the controversial policing practice if elected. He said he explicitly defined “stop-and-frisk” in the paper as unconstitutionally stopping citizens without reasonable suspicion. “I think that we have held up our promise to end this unconstitutional practice and to make sure, on a long-term basis, we can aspirationally get down to zero unconstitutional stops,” Kenney said on Friday.
But Kenney wasn’t always as nuanced on the campaign trail as he was in his policy paper. He told NewsWorks in April 2015, “If [I’m] mayor, stop-and-frisk will end in Philadelphia, no question.” Many of the attendees thought that meant something much broader than what he detailed in his paper. Frustrations stemming from the disconnect boiled over Friday, with people yelling from the church pews at the mayor. “Black faces put you in office! You are a liar!” one woman shouted. “Jim Kenney doesn’t care about us. His body language has been crap the whole time.”
Kenney, who has situated himself as a mayor who cares deeply about neighborhoods, appeared at times flustered, exasperated and downright exhausted on stage. He took a beating. When audience members were invited to ask questions of panel members, attendants not only criticized Kenney’s handling of the police department, but also his performance on issues like education and jobs. Many insinuated that he hasn’t done enough for black communities. At one point, a flummoxed Kenney turned to the other panelists in rhetorical fashion, and asked, “I’m not working on jobs? I’m not working on jobs?” As the antagonism built against him, Kenney tried to defend his record by bringing up the fact that he pushed through a bill decriminalizing marijuana as a City Councilman: “Or else 4,200 people a year would be locked up for it,” he said. “And 83 percent of them were African-American, and that’s why we decriminalized it.”
Throughout the event, the contrast in demeanor between Kenney and Ross was compelling. Backed into a corner, Kenney responded with attempts at compassion. He said that he was listening; he was trying; he can’t flip a switch to improve things. Ross, on the other hand, was brief, steadfast and defiant. When asked if the police department would raise the standard needed to make a pedestrian stop from the current level (reasonable suspicion) to a stricter justification (probable cause), he bluntly answered, “No, we are not.”
However brief, the answer was a revealing pivot from what Ross and Tulante had said just a month ago. Then, they reportedly claimed that the city had no authority to raise the threshold permitting police officers to stop pedestrians because of the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio. On Friday, though, Tulante said the police department can, in fact, raise the standard (as the ACLU has been claiming for weeks), but that doing so would be detrimental to policing. “It impedes the ability to investigate crimes, because you need the lower standard to determine whether a crime is occurring,” said Tulante. “If you need probable cause, that’s not going to happen.” The city solicitor also said that he hasn’t been able to to find a single police department in the country that has raised its threshold for pedestrian stops.
The greatest uproar of the evening came in response to one of Ross’s comments. Several activists in attendance, some representing the Philly Coalition for REAL Justice and Black Lives Matter, had taken up the mic to not only vilify the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, but also what they perceived as institutional racism inherent in the police department. (A petition was circulated during the event, asking for community control of the department.) These far-reaching soliloquies prompted Rev. Leslie Callahan, the second moderator, to ask Ross, “If it is not white supremacy, from your perspective, that leads to these disparities, what is it?”
Ross responded, “First of all, I take issue with your white supremacy thing … ” before yelling from the audience rendered the last few words of his comments inaudible. Then, organizers attempted to restore order during an impromptu 20-minute intermission.
Eventually, dozens of people lined up to ask questions of or make comments to the panel. One young man who identified himself as a community organizer in North Philadelphia and a Ross mentee tried to advocate for community self-improvement, rather than “blaming” the police. After he was yelled at by various audience members, the night came to an abrupt conclusion. Rev. Gregory Holston, a pastor at the church, said, “You can’t be cursing in this church. I’m sorry. This event is over.”
It’s rare to witness a public event with so many overlapping contentions. The panelists sparred with the moderators, while the audience members bickered with each other as well as the panelists.
Although it might seem hyperbolic to say that the repeated barbs thrown at Kenney on Friday could signal that stop-and-frisk will come back to haunt him in the 2019 mayoral election, there was a small acknowledgement from the mayor himself that the issue isn’t subsiding anytime soon. “If you’re upset with me because you think I walked back on that issue and you’ll never vote for me again, then I’ll totally understand that. I’ll totally understand,” Kenney said.