Stop-and-frisk should be stopped and questioned

So says the DN editorial board today:

The key to controlling gun violence is to reduce the carrying of guns. The key to reduced carrying is the deterrent effect of getting caught with a gun and having it confiscated. And the key to creating that deterrent is widespread use of the police technique known as "stop-question-and frisk."

These words appear on Page 6 of a 150-page briefing book by mayoral candidate Michael Nutter, so it's fair to call stop-and-frisk one of his signature policies.

Now, in light of a class-action lawsuit filed last week, and ongoing concerns about this controversial practice, it's natural to ask: How many guns have been confiscated as a result of the revved-up strategy of stopping citizens and frisking them?

Good question. In order to get an answer, though, you'll have to stop and frisk someone other than the mayor, whose office did not have that figure. In fact, actual data on stop-and-frisk is hard to come by, because it has not been separately collected, monitored or reviewed.

Unfortunately - or maybe fortunately for us - what we do know of stop-and-frisk is in the lawsuit, filed by the firm of attorney David Rudovsky and the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of eight black and Latino men - including a lawyer, an academic and a state lawmaker -who have been stopped and frisked by police, some on a regular basis. We know that these were among the 253,000 pedestrian stops that police conducted in 2009 - 72 percent of them African-American, and 148 percent more than 2005- out of which 8 percent led to arrests.

What those arrests were for, how many led to convictions and how many included the confiscation of guns is unknown. Also unknown: Is 8 percent a high number? Is it too low?

Still, it's not entirely right to focus on the 2,000 or so arrests that resulted. What the Nutter administration needs to focus on in addressing this policy are 251,000 people who were stopped and frisked for no reason.

Consider it this way: 17 percent of Philadelphia's 1.5 million residents a year are stopped by the police; every day, police challenge and confront nearly 700 residents, with only a small percentage of the stops leading to arrest. Before asking whether it's worth it, we have to ask: Is this really necessary? Are 2,000 arrests worth subjecting a quarter of a million innocent citizens to the humiliation and fright of being confronted by police?

New York, which is also being challenged in federal court on its stop-and-frisk strategy, last year stopped 575,000 residents, out of 8 million total. Their rate of gun seizures is nominal.

The police in New York are required to release these numbers only because of a lawsuit following the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man.

The Philadelphia class-action suit is not seeking monetary compensation; the case aims to replace structures that are not now in place that would make the police more accountable for their actions.

An earlier consent decree following the scandal in the 39th Police District led to the creation of an office that was charged with collecting and reviewing information and data on police performance. (Rudovsky was also involved in that case.) This Office of Integrity and Accountability, on behalf of which this page has argued since its end in 2005, performed an important function then. Nutter should not wait until this lawsuit winds its way in court to take action, like creating a similar office.

Our point is that the administration and the Police Department have championed a strategy that has the potential for trampling the constitutional and civil rights of citizens, without a strategy for explaining how or whether it works.

To us, that's a serious crime.

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