PHILADELPHIA (AP) — One candidate said he would immediately go to the scene with the police commissioner. Another said she would go on television and ask for calm. Several said they would visit the victim’s family, reach out to community leaders and make sure everyone had all the facts.
Those answers came at a recent Philadelphia mayoral debate that opened with the candidates being asked how they would respond if city police killed an unarmed black man. It was a question inspired by the events of a week earlier, 100 miles down Interstate 95.
Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore and the unrest that followed have swiftly reshaped the campaign to lead the nation’s fifth-largest city — the biggest with an election so soon after the turmoil. Just weeks before a May 19 primary that will almost certainly decide the winner in the heavily Democratic city, policing has vaulted past education and the economy as the dominant election issue.
Philadelphia’s next mayor will inherit a police force that has long been a microcosm of the problems plaguing departments from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore. Among them: many police-involved shootings; a reputation for the kind of rough rides to the precinct implicated in Gray’s death; and high-profile bouts with corruption and brutality.
“Philadelphia is just one incident away,” candidate Nelson Diaz said.
It’s also in a position to be a model for change.
The police department is working to implement dozens of changes in training, transparency and outreach that popular Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey helped shape as co-chairman of the policing task force President Barack Obama formed after the fatal police shooting last summer of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson.
It has also agreed to 91 recommendations from a Justice Department review of its nearly 400 officer-involved shootings since 2007.
The Democrats angling to replace term-limited Mayor Michael Nutter have proposed sweeping reforms of their own, including ending the stop-and-frisk practice they say unfairly targets minorities, zero tolerance for hateful speech by officers and decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Jerry Ratcliffe, the chairman of Temple University’s criminal justice department, said the bold ideas could help win an election, but they won’t win over a police force overnight.
“Experienced police leaders know that change takes time,” Ratcliffe said. “They also know that politicians are not patient for change. In most cities, those things come into some degree of conflict.”
Ramsey and Nutter are an exception.
They entered office together in 2008 and have a close working relationship that has enabled the 44-year police veteran to modernize the police department, all while continuing to cut crime.
Ramsey started outfitting officers with body cameras in January, has moved more officers onto foot and bicycle patrols in crime-ridden communities, and broadly expanded the department’s use of surveillance video and social media.
Ramsey, who is black, said he supports only lawful stop-and-frisks — called “Terry stops” after the 1968 Supreme Court ruling upholding an officer’s right to pat down a person suspected of criminal activity. There is no department policy encouraging stop-and-frisk, he said.
All six Democratic candidates say they would end the practice completely, but only state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and former state Sen. T. Milton Street said they would end Ramsey’s career, too.
Williams, a state senator from west Philadelphia, seized on the recent unrest elsewhere by showing up at a “Philly is Baltimore” rally and generating the only real controversy of the ho-hum campaign by declaring war on the widely respected Ramsey over his support of stop-and-frisk.
Nutter offered a sharp rebuttal, saying anyone not smart enough to ask the popular Ramsey to stay is “probably not smart enough to lead the city.”
Last week, Williams started airing a commercial attacking rival Jim Kenney for questioning limitations on police tactics in a 1997 newspaper article.
“We now have discussions, ironically, about no longer allowing police officers to use pepper gas,” Kenney said at the time. “I mean, come on. You can’t use the flashlights. You can’t use the clubs on the head. You can’t shoot anybody. What’s next? Are we going to hand them feather dusters?”
Kenney has called his comments “embarrassing” and said he had evolved as the paradigms of policing changed over the past two decades. His campaign called the commercial divisive and untruthful.
Lynne Abraham, the tough, law-and-order former prosecutor once deemed America’s “deadliest D.A.” for her propensity for pursuing capital punishment, has faced criticism for her reluctance to prosecute police officers accused of wrongdoing.
“It’s going to be challenging for some of the candidates, especially when everybody has long memories for what people say,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s a difficulty in answering questions that will get you elected and then having to deal with the police union and the police executive on a long-term basis.”
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