Tempers flare at 'stop and frisk' town hall
It seemed as if the New Vision United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia was filled to capacity as residents and community members voiced their concerns and opinions on the topic of “stop and frisk.”
The town hall meeting took place Friday and was organized and facilitated by local media company Techbook Online and interfaith network POWER. As Christopher Norris, CEO of Techbook Online, began the discussion things seemed calm. That would soon change.
“When we were putting this together, some people were worried about turn out, but I said that this is an issue that people care deeply about,” Norris said as he began the evening’s program. “Those who have been looking at this issue for a long time, know that conversations like this are rare.”
Several panel members were in attendance at the town hall, including Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Richard Ross, Pennsylvania ACLU Deputy Legal Director Mary Catherine Roper, City Solicitor Sozi Tulante and Police Advisory Commission Executive Director Kelvyn Anderson.
After introductions, Norris directed his first question at Kenney asking if he would be willing to apologize, on behalf of the city, for the number of unconstitutional stops made so far in Philadelphia.
“Understand the fact that I have been mayor since January 4th, 2016 and taking that into account for anyone who has had an unconstitutional interaction with a police officer, I do apologize,” Kenney said. “It’s uncalled for and we’ve been working very hard from Jan. 4 onward to make sure that they go entirely away.”
All the panel members were able to speak and offer their insight and view on the topic, though it was not until Roper spoke that murmurs of anger started to reverberate throughout the church.
“Everyone of us comes with inherent biases, I think that many members of the police department are accustomed to viewing certain things as suspicious so they don’t think as ‘that looks like a person I want to harass, they look as it as that is a person that seems suspicious,’” Roper said. “I have no doubt that there are exceptions, both ways. I don’t know the heart of these police officers, what I know is the numbers and the experiences reported to me, people who look like me do not go through this.”
Roper let out a small half-laugh and in response a voice could be heard from somewhere in the church, not yelling but loud enough for all to hear, “It’s not funny.”
Without acknowledging the comment, Roper added that the lack of dignity, disrespect and, at times, violence is inexcusable. She went on to praise Ross’ new measures for accountability for the police department, adding that they are “very strong methods.”
“I believe with strong leadership this absolutely can change, and that’s what I’m waiting to see here,” Roper said.
The words, “political answer” were shouted from the audience in conjunction with an anxiousness to ask more questions from the audience.
“I think a lot of people in the audience are pretty much feeling what I’m feeling,” Meghan Malachi said as she was given the microphone. “Frankly, I feel that this entire panel is redundant. Here we are again in one of our sacred places, which is a black church, to listen to people who are not having our best interest. We’re not trying to listen to all this nonsense about policies and numbers, we want to know if you’re going to end ‘stop and frisk.’”
Accompanying the loud claps for Malachi’s comments, the words “liars” and “pigs” could also be heard.
Many in the audience believed that Kenney had walked away from a promise that he made while campaigning to end “stop and frisk.”
“I understand your anger, but I respectfully disagree with your position that I’ve changed my position,” said Kenney. “I am here. I’ve come to North Philadelphia because you asked me here. It’s in writing from March 2015 what my position is, we have not changed and we will continue to work to implement policies that end these unconstitutional stops.”
The audience was not happy with Kenney’s answer. Shouting within the church would often swell as Norris and the church’s pastor called for all to remain calm, understanding the feeling of unrest and anger.
Norris asked Ross, who remained silent and only spoke when spoken to, if the City would ever be willing to consider a possible change in the “stop and frisk” standards, from “reasonable suspicion” to “probable cause.”
“No, we’re not.” Ross replied. “This is the law of the United States of America. No, we’re not.”
When it came time for audience members to finally ask questions, lines of North Philadelphia residents filled the aisle of the church. Only a few questions were asked and answered before the town hall was called off because of a mix of interruptions, shouting, yelling and cursing.
“I was here on behalf of my brother who was recently stopped and frisked and wound up having an officer’s foot against his neck,” said Mount Airy resident, Sonia Blount, who did not get a chance to ask her question to the commissioner. “I wanted to ask the commissioner whether he had sons or nephews and moving forward and, for our future generations, what am I supposed to tell my future sons and brothers in this community, what am I supposed to tell them? That just because they are black they are considered suspicious?”