Cherelle Parker capped her campaign to become Philadelphia’s first woman mayor by pledging to make the city safer by any legal means necessary – even if it meant ramping up the use of stop-and-frisk policing, a controversial tactic that allows officers to detain and pat someone down for investigative purposes.  

But since taking office on January 2, she and Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel have mostly sidestepped questions on how stop-and-frisk will factor into their law enforcement initiatives, even as they’re scheduled to unveil a comprehensive public safety plan later this month. That silence has sparked concern among some community members, who worry that any plan under consideration could revive a fraught facet of Philadelphia’s history with policing gun violence.

Many crimes that police stop Philadelphians for are related to gun violence, which has claimed more than 1,860 lives since 2020. Parker loosely alluded to her earlier stance on stop-and-frisk the first week of March while addressing the press after a mass shooting of teenagers. “We will use every legal tool in the toolbox to ensure the public health and safety of the people of our city,” she said. “We don’t apologize for using every legal and constitutional tool.”

Seconds later, a reporter asked if the time had come to escalate the use of stop-and-frisk policing. Bethel snapped at him. “Is this the moment and time to talk about that? Literally, is this the moment and time?” Bethel asked. “We have 11 children shot today. This is not stop-and-frisk. This is not about that right now. This is about what we’re going to do as a city to address the violence that we’re seeing now.”

Amid a lack of clarity from the Mayor’s Office, some Philadelphians see the first fatal police shooting of Parker’s tenure as a harbinger of the expansion of stop-and-frisk. Parker and Bethel were thrust into full crisis mode in January when two police officers got into a tussle with 28-year-old Alexander Spencer, whom they encountered at a corner store. An officer was shot in the leg, prompting his partner, Officer Raheem Hall, to fatally shoot Spencer.

Days later, the Police Department released the store’s surveillance footage. In the video, Hall appears to ask two men if they have guns, before walking to the back of the store and asking the same question of Spencer and another man. Hall appears to begin patting Spencer’s clothing before Spencer begins resisting, prompting both officers to grab at him before all three fall to the ground. 

Bethel said that when the officers entered the store, they were on routine patrol while looking for a local shooting suspect. He said the encounter escalated when one of the officers thought he saw a gun in Spencer’s pocket. The footage shows the weapon flying across the room while the two officers wrestle with Spencer; it’s unclear exactly what happened next. District Attorney Larry Krasner is now investigating the shooting.

While the city awaits the outcome of Krasner’s probe, some are questioning whether the clash was the result of an illegal stop. Spencer’s supporters are holding rallies and demanding that the officer be criminally charged. “This has to stop, this stop-and-frisk,” said Charito Morales, a community activist and leader of the Party for Socialism and Liberation and Philly Boricua, a community group. “Didn’t they learn the lesson from the past that it is unconstitutional, that it is racist, and it’s an abuse of power?”

Keisha Hudson, the chief defender of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, was troubled by the shooting. “Every time there’s an incident like this, it creates more mistrust between the police and the neighborhoods they’re sworn to protect,” she said.

Philadelphia’s History With Police Stops

The ability of police to stop and frisk a person – also known as Terry stops – derives from the 1968 Terry v. Ohio U.S. Supreme Court case. The court ruled that if police had a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed by a person, that person could be briefly detained, questioned, and, for officer safety, patted down.

In Philadelphia, where 40 percent of the population is Black, and where Black males are the leading victims and perpetrators of gun violence, stop-and-frisk elicits strong opinions. For 13 years, the Philadelphia Police Department has operated under a federal consent decree that requires the department to collect data on all police stops and provide officers with necessary training and supervision. 

The oversight is the result of a 2010 class-action lawsuit filed by eight African American and Hispanic men — including a lawyer, researcher, and member of the state House of Representatives — who accused the department of repeatedly stopping them based on race, in violation of the Fourth and 14th amendments. The agreement established a monitoring system in which the Police Department, plaintiffs’ counsel, and an independent court-appointed monitor review the data. 

In 2009, before the plaintiffs sued the police, officers made 260,000 pedestrian stops, compared with about 12,000 last year, said David Rudovsky, one of the attorneys. 

Since the consent decree began, the number of stops made without reasonable suspicion has decreased from just over 50 percent in February 2012 to 12.8 percent last year, according to the most recent compliance report. The report noted that 86 percent of those stopped were male, the average age was 30.7 years, and the vast majority, 73 percent, were Black — 3 percent higher than in the second half of 2019.

“We… track to make sure that there are no patterns and practices that we’re seeing — that the officer is inappropriately stopping anyone in the area that they’re working because of their race,” Bethel said. “Will you have every stop be perfect? No. So we evaluate that, and we continue to retrain the men and women in this work.”

The report found that the “hit rate” for finding guns during legal stops jumped to 6 percent in 2023, up from just 1 percent when the consent decree began. “The improved hit rates do show that [the police department] monitoring, training, and discipline are effective tools in achieving compliance,” attorneys for the plaintiffs wrote.

The future of stop-and-frisk

The attorneys behind the lawsuit that led to the consent decree are cautioning Parker and Bethel that relying on stop-and-frisk would be a flawed approach. “I think they know what went wrong previously,’ said Rudovsky, “and I’m just hoping that they don’t repeat that pattern again.” 

In an interview with The Trace, Bethel declined to give specifics on the upcoming safety plan, but confirmed that more beat officers will be coming, especially to the 10 patrol districts that account for 80 percent of the city’s major crimes. With the COVID-19 pandemic in the past, police academy classes are larger, which will help shrink the current officer vacancy of 1,200, Bethel said. The department is authorized to have 6,380 officers, but currently has 5,200.

Police stops, he said, come with more engaged community work. “We may stop without making a frisk of people often,” he said. “Stops are a byproduct of the work. I won’t put a number on it. But we are moving forward with creating our presence in the community.”

Bethel noted that there are multiple levels of review of every stop, as mandated by the court order. “I don’t call them stop-and-frisk, as you know,” he said. “It has always been a mainstay in policing across the nation for decades. And so we use them as part of our normal work.”

But the fact that the consent decree is still in place indicates that the Police Department has not achieved the goal of making only legal stops, free from racial bias, said Mary Catherine Roper, another plaintiff attorney. 

“Any plan for how your police resources are deployed, and especially for more aggressive policing in response to our gun violence numbers, needs to also include accountability measures,” she said. “How are you going to make sure that, if you want to use stop and frisk, that your officers are doing it properly?” 

Even when done constitutionally, Roper said, stop-and-frisk policing does little to reduce crime. “More stops do not equal more guns recovered,” she said. “There are no studies that show that reducing stop and frisk causes more people to carry guns.”

Erik Van Zant, a criminal justice reform advocate, said he anticipates that some will not be pleased with the safety plan, which is due to be announced this month. “You have to be a disruptor because tried-and-true methods haven’t been working, and because nobody wants to step on anyone’s toes, and nothing really changes,” he said. “With stop-and-frisk, it’s going to be up to Kevin Bethel to give proper instructions to the officers. If cops are just pulling people over like crazy and shaking them down, it’s not going to work. That’s not going to be a good look.”