Philly police decreasing use of stop-and-frisk, officials say

The Philadelphia Police Department recorded 35 percent fewer pedestrian stops in 2016 than a year earlier, and a greater proportion of those stops were made with reasonable suspicion, as required by law.

Still, at least one-fifth of the 140,000 pedestrian stops last year lacked legal justification, and civil rights attorneys monitoring the department’s stop-and-frisk practices say that a large majority of the stops affected minorities — and that only a tiny percentage resulted in officers' recovering guns or other contraband.

“On the one hand, there’s improvement,” said David Rudovsky, one of the lawyers involved in the monitoring. “But on the other, there’s still a ways to go.”

The data were made public Tuesday in competing reports filed in federal court by city officials and Rudovsky and his colleagues. The city agreed six years ago to submit to monitoring of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices, and both the city and the attorneys’ group, which includes Rudovsky, periodically release reports on the situation.

In the most recent reports, the sides agreed on at least one point: The 139,441 pedestrian stops in 2016 represented a decrease of more than one-third from the previous year. City officials also wrote that the figure represented the lowest number of stops in the city since 2010.

Rudovsky credited Mayor Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross for implementing new accountability measures last year regarding stops, when each was new in his job. City officials say those steps — which included more training, more frequent audits by command staff, and having more police routinely review data about stops — have contributed to a decreased percentage of unconstitutional encounters.

“I think our willingness to look at the whole picture, and not to be myopic ...  has helped us immensely in doing this,” Ross said at a City Hall news conference Tuesday morning.

Still, Rudovsky and his colleagues — lawyers with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania — contended in their report that 25 percent of stops in the second half of 2016 were done without reasonable suspicion, suggesting that about 35,000 people were unconstitutionally stopped during the year, an average of nearly 100 per day.

And frisks were worse, they wrote: Twenty-seven percent were conducted without reasonable suspicion, and 14 percent were preceded by an unconstitutional stop.

City officials had a slightly different analysis, writing that less than 20 percent of stops were conducted without reasonable suspicion in the second half of 2016, and that about one-quarter of frisks were problematic.

Ross said that officials were committed to trying to drive those numbers down further and that although police had not set a quota on the number of overall stops to conduct or avoid, “we do want better numbers with regards to compliance.”

Outside of pure stop numbers, Rudovsky said, he was also concerned by what he called a low “hit rate.” His analysis suggested that officers recovered guns in less than 1 percent of all stops, and drugs in less than 2 percent.

And while his group had not yet conducted a full analysis of potential racial bias in 2016 stops, preliminary data showed that 68 percent of those stopped were African American, though African Americans represented 43 percent of the city’s population.

Kenney, who once pledged to end stop-and-frisk if elected mayor, said Tuesday that he wanted to ensure “that no young black male going to school or going to work will be stopped because of the color of their skin.” Racial bias prompted the attorneys in 2011 to file their lawsuit against the city’s stop-and-frisk program. The Nutter administration settled and agreed to the ongoing monitoring, which Kenney said was unique among cities across the country.

Kenney hopes steady improvements in the policy will continue to increase trust between police and community residents — even if it doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s not like turning off a switch,” he said. “You can’t come in on Day One and turn off the switch automatically. This took a lot of work and a lot of thinking and a lot of training and a lot of process in order for us to get where we are, and we’re not close to being done yet.”