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.”