Action News Investigation: Racial disparity in Philadelphia police use of stop-and-frisk, data shows

ByChad Pradelli and Cheryl Mettendorf WPVI logo
Wednesday, February 3, 2021
Action News Investigation: Racial disparities in Philadelphia police's use of stop-and-frisk, data shows
An Action News Investigation looked into police stops to shed more light on who is more likely to be stopped, and why.

An Action News Investigation looked into police stops to shed more light on who is more likely to be stopped, and why.

Known as "stop-and-frisk," the longstanding policy in the Philadelphia Police Department is aimed at getting guns off the streets.

Supporters say the number of Blacks and Hispanics subjected to it, is largely due to their over-representation in high crime areas that police patrol more.

Proponents call it proactive policing that creates more tension between the community and police.

Mahari Bailey said the first time he was unjustifiably stopped by police was in high school.

"So he just took me out the car, you know, searched the car, asked you know, where the guns were, where the weapons and drugs were. I'm like, 'Dude, I'm in 10th grade,'" he said.

That experience wouldn't be his last.

As a Black man, he said over the years he experienced a handful of other stops.

Bailey said he felt like police stopped him more often after he became a lawyer and his cars and clothes became fancier, which singled him out.

He described another stop years later, "They come up to the car, same exact thing, 'Where are the guns, where are the drugs.' I'm like, 'Dude, I'm a lawyer.'"

Bailey is not the only one with a story to tell.

Our investigation found Philadelphia police stopped three million pedestrians and drivers over the past six years.

Roughly 70% were Black even though Blacks make up about 40% of the population in the city.

The data also showed Blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely to get frisked and searched as whites.

Civil attorney David Rudovsky found a majority of those stopped were without legal justification.

"That is -- they didn't have the reasonable suspicion they were required to have," he said.

Rudovsky represented Bailey and a half dozen others in a stop-and-frisk civil lawsuit against the city a decade ago.

The lawsuit resulted in a settlement that included court-mandated data collection and a yearly report on stop-and-frisk practices.

Rudovsky said unreasonable searches have improved under the administration of Mayor Jim Kenney.

"We were seeing 40 to 50% of the stops without legal justification when we started," he said. "Last year, our analysis showed only about 15% of the stops without legal justification."

Like her predecessors, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw supports the use of stop-and-frisk.

"I think it's a very difficult line that police officers have to walk," she said.

Outlaw said police respond to areas where there is more crime and those are predominately minority neighborhoods.

"With that said, though, it doesn't mean that we get to cast a wide net on every African American male or any Black or brown male between the ages of 18 and 30, because we think just because you fall into this category, we can do anything that we want again within the law," she said.

According to police data, Action News found in Philadelphia, Black residents had the highest percentage of stops, but the lowest hit rate, meaning the proportion of successful searches or frisks where contraband was found.

The highest hit rate was white women, likely due to police targeting them for prostitution and drugs.

"We got to make sure that we're using the tool properly, we're using it within the parameters of the law," said Outlaw.

Outlaw said her department plans to incorporate more training on stop-and-frisk in the future, but the tool will remain at the disposal of officers.

Bailey said although the progress Philadelphia police are making is encouraging, the pain still lingers.

"The frustration, the anger, the humiliation, the torment, you can't explain it. So it's one of those things that every Black man would know what I'm talking about," he says.