Philadelphia Democrats voted to nominate as their mayoral candidate, Cherelle Parker, who supports reviving a limited version of a controversial method of policing known as “stop and frisk” as a solution to the city’s persistent violent crime rate.
A former state representative and onetime city councilwoman, Parker emerged from a hotly contested Democratic primary with roughly one-third of the vote Tuesday night. The primary win puts her on a likely trajectory to become the first woman to ever hold the mayor’s seat in a race whose list of issues has been dominated by crime.
Widely considered the establishment pick in the race, Parker struck a comparatively moderate tone against a more progressive field of candidates. She stressed her record of expanding beat cop patrols in all of the city’s neighborhoods at a time others—like runner-up Rebecca Rhynhart—cautioned against a return to “racist” law and order policies in favor of proactive, preventive measures to mitigate crime.
But the situation in Philadelphia, many believe, has become increasingly untenable, requiring a more dramatic approach to fighting violent crime.
Once a paragon of progressive law enforcement policy, Philadelphia already surpassed 100 homicides for the year in March after a slight decline in homicides last year, which came on the heels of a record-breaking year of violence in 2021. And shifting conditions in the city, it seems, has caused a shift in rhetoric.
Where Parker once opposed stop-and-frisk policies—allowing police to stop anyone on the street they suspect of committing a crime—she as well as several other candidates in the Democratic field like Allan Domb and Jeff Brown have since embraced returning to a limited, “constitutional” version of the policy. It would mark a dramatic shift from former mayor Jim Kenney’s 2015 pledge to abandon the practice in the city after findings that the policy under his predecessor, Michael Nutter, led to arbitrary and inequitable treatment of minorities.
While Parker said in a recent Democratic debate she would support continued police reforms, she added her potential administration will “use every tool in the toolbox to ensure that our city is safer and cleaner and greener,” including a limited form of stop and frisk that gives police officers the ability to search anyone they believe could pose a threat.
That method, colloquially known as a “Terry stop” after the 1968 U.S Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, deems a police officer may briefly stop and detain a person for a pat-down search if that officer has reasonable suspicion they are armed, engaged in, or are about to carry out criminal conduct.
“We cannot afford to take any legal tool away from law enforcement so that they can ensure that our public health and safety is our No. 1 priority,” she said in a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer on the subject.
Newsweek has reached out to Parker’s campaign for comment.
Stop-and-frisk policies have a long and divisive history in major cities around the U.S. for their disproportionate impact on minorities.
In the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case Floyd v. City of New York, an ideologically balanced court held the city’s aggressive practice of suspicionless and racially pretextual searches violated the Fourth Amendment due to its disproportionate use against Black and Hispanic residents. It also had mixed results in fighting crime. One 2016 survey of policing data found the vast majority of street stops made by the police in New York at the height of stop-and-frisk did not lead to arrests or the discovery of illegal weapons.
The year prior, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Philadelphia leaders because they believed police were overwhelmingly stopping people of color without legal justification. And while Philadelphia’s stop-and-frisk policies have slowed, a 2020 ACLU report found Black Philadelphians were 50 percent more likely to be stopped without reasonable suspicion than white people. Most voters seemed to agree it was a problem. Later that year, nearly 83 percent of Philadelphians voted for a referendum to “eliminate the practice of unconstitutional stop and frisk, consistent with judicial precedent.”
However, other research found searches based on specific suspicions by officers and not general sweeps or racial profiling—like Parker claims to support—appear to have helped reduce crime, according to a research article from 2016 by John MacDonald.
Still, perception is everything. And in a race that has already been defined by crime and law enforcement, Parker’s position on stop-and-frisk policies—while arguably subdued—could become a campaign issue.
While a longshot to win, Parker’s Republican challenger and former city councilman David Oh—who once served as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office—told Newsweek he opposes a continuation of the city’s stop-and-frisk policies. Instead, he advocated for an expanded police force and increased drone surveillance, which he says could prove a more active deterrent to crime than a method that has traditionally proven to be an arbitrary violation of peoples’ right to privacy.
“You have the mistrust of the community because the police are going up on people and violating their rights, which doesn’t end up well,” he said in an interview. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to police, because the police have a history of abusing people’s constitutional rights whether they’re guilty or not, criminal or innocent. Everybody knows what the police are doing in this neighborhood. And the fact that they may not actually even be from this neighborhood does not help the situation.”
However, Oh admitted the fact either proposal—an expansion of police surveillance like in his campaign, or an embrace of stop-and-frisk under the Parker campaign—was on the table was an admission the public ultimately wanted something done about the city’s violent crime rate.
According to an April poll by SSRS, a Pennsylvania-based research company, approximately 64 percent of Philadelphians reported hearing a gunshot in their neighborhood over the previous year, with 89 percent of city residents reporting crime as a “top” issue in the upcoming mayor’s race.
And of the Democratic field, Parker appeared to inspire confidence, even with Tuesday’s relatively anemic voter turnout, the Inquirer reported, where precincts in Northeast and Southwestern Philadelphia went for Domb while the downtown precincts and the affluent Roxborough neighborhood went to Rhynhart, Parker dominated returns in the inner city, including resounding wins throughout West Philadelphia, pockets of which carry some of the city’s worst violent crime rates, CBS reported.
However, it’s the approach to how you address that problem, Oh argues, that should matter to voters.
“We want to we want to reduce murders, we want people to be safe, and we want them to feel safe,” he said. “But you cannot violate the constitution. You cannot have the police, your law enforcement people, violate civil rights or anything like that. So it is not a thing where you can take a shortcut.”