Former City Councilman Michael Nutter capped a come- from-behind surge Tuesday by winning the Democratic mayoral primary in Philadelphia. He now heads to the November general election as a heavy favorite. Given the campaign’s focus on the city’s current crime wave, the primary result suggests voters are willing to accept Nutter’s controversial plan to promote the widespread use of “stop and frisk” tactics by Philadelphia police officers. Still, many expressed concerns about the plan, and those in communities most likely to be affected by both continuing street crime and the proposed tactics remained skeptical.
Though the stop-and-frisk plan represented just one small part of Nutter’s comprehensive crime-fighting policy–one component of a broader campaign strategy centered on good government–it took on a life of its own as the primary approached. Rival candidates, most notably Representative Chaka Fattah, blasted the Nutter plan as a blueprint for racial profiling and a civil liberties nightmare. That criticism led to a contentious editorial cartoon in the Philadelphia Daily News, which depicted Fattah telling two young men with bullet holes in their chests that he would protect them from stop-and-frisk tactics.
The US Supreme Court has long held that police officers can stop a person on the street and conduct a surface search for weapons if they have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot and that the person may be armed and dangerous. Several cities have employed aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics over the years, with varying results. Nutter, one of three black candidates in the primary race, noted frequently in the campaign that even the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania agreed that the tactics, if conducted properly, would not violate the Constitution. He also pledged to work with the ACLU and other community groups to insure effective implementation of his plan.
There were 406 homicides in Philadelphia in 2006, the highest per capita homicide rate among America’s major cities. Though Philadelphians broadly support stricter gun-control laws to combat the homicide problem, the realities of statewide politics, particularly the gun lobby’s strength in Harrisburg, regularly derail gun-control initiatives. So with the 2007 homicide tally mirroring that of 2006, the city’s residents looked to the mayoral candidates for strategies aimed at reversing the current trend. In several pre- election polls, more than 70 percent of prospective Democratic voters identified violent crime as the most important issue facing Philadelphia. It was against that backdrop that Nutter unveiled his controversial plan, declaring that “we must focus our efforts on what we can do today with existing laws.”
I interviewed Nutter on May 7, shortly after the final televised debate of the campaign. At the time, he was just beginning to look like a winner. A Keystone poll released two days later marked his first appearance atop the five-man pack in the yearlong campaign. (Fattah led the polls early on, and businessman Tom Knox led in March and April, after dumping $7 million of his own money into the campaign.) Intrigued by his frequent references to the ACLU on the trail, I asked Nutter how he might react to an ACLU lawsuit challenging a stop-and-frisk by the Philadelphia police during his tenure as mayor.
“First of all, I’m going to know what’s going on out on the street on a regular basis,” he said. “Secondly, if there are problems, I will address them. And if we need to make changes, I’ll do that as well. Part of being a leader is being willing to evaluate what you’ve put forward.”
As a political matter, Nutter would be wise to maintain his professed flexibility. Though he won the primary with 37 percent of the vote, even some of his most vocal supporters have questioned the wisdom of his stop-and-frisk plan. “We have a ways to go before being sold on the stop-and-frisk initiative,” wrote the editor of Philadelphia Weekly in the paper’s endorsement of Nutter. “Frankly, we don’t have the same trust in the police he does, and we worry about racial profiling.”
Perhaps more important, residents of the high-crime communities most likely to be affected by the plan voiced serious concerns outside the polls on Tuesday. “If they’re given permission to frisk, they can frisk your grandmother or grandson or anyone else,” said Livingston Hudson, who cast his vote in North Philadelphia for one of Nutter’s rivals. “And who would be frisked the most? People like Latinos and African-Americans.”
North Philadelphia, an area with a large minority population and widespread poverty, represents one of the city’s most violent areas. (It can be difficult to locate on this map because the red dots representing homicides in 2006 cover most of the letters.) Yet many of Hudson’s neighbors expressed similar anxiety about the application of stop-and-frisk tactics. And given that Nutter drew his strongest support from white and wealthier voters–people less likely to be affected directly by either the crime wave or stop-and-frisk tactics–he faces a long road ahead in terms of attaining street-to-street support for his plan.
Eugene Baylor, who wore a Michael Nutter T-shirt outside his polling place in West Philadelphia Tuesday, offered a telling snapshot of the city’s mixed sentiments. “I’m supporting Michael because I feel deep down that there’s a good possibility he can do something about the crime problem,” he said. “But stop-and-frisk is a dangerous policy. He needs to tell citizens, ‘These are your rights. Here are the hotline numbers if your rights are violated.’ He needs to have support groups to deal with violations.”
I asked Baylor, a black man who served two tours in Vietnam, if he thought Nutter could execute the plan without stirring the city’s racial tensions. After glancing quickly at his T-shirt and then down the block, he replied, “That’s yet to be seen.”