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Philadelphia’s likely next mayor could offer model for how Democrats talk about crime

May 17, 2023, 9:05 PM

FILE - Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker takes part in a Democratic primary debate at the WPVI-TV s...

FILE - Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker takes part in a Democratic primary debate at the WPVI-TV studio in Philadelphia, April 25, 2023. Parker, the Democrat who will almost certainly become Philadelphia's next mayor wants to hire hundreds of additional police officers to walk their beats and get to know residents. She wants to devote resources to recruiting more police and says officers should be able to stop and search pedestrians if they have a legitimate reason to do so. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Democrat who will almost certainly become Philadelphia’s next mayor wants to hire hundreds of additional police officers to walk their beats and get to know residents. She wants to devote resources to recruiting more police and says officers should be able to stop and search pedestrians if they have a legitimate reason to do so.

Those positions, particularly the search policies that have been criticized for wrongly targeting people of color, would seem out of step in a progressive bastion like Philadelphia. But Cherelle Parker trounced her rivals in this week’s mayoral primary with a message that centered on tougher law enforcement to combat rising crime and violence.

While local politics don’t always align with the ideological divides that guide the national debate, Parker’s victory offers a fresh case study for Democrats as they wrestle with how to approach the issue of violent crime, which increased in many U.S. cities during the pandemic and continues to be top of mind for voters across the country. The issue has divided Democrats from city halls to the White House, particularly over how much to rely on policing and incarceration to solve what many see as social problems, such as drug abuse and homelessness.

Parker, a former state legislator and city council member, argued that it’s a false choice to decide between investing in policing and addressing broader societal problems.

“It is not either/or,” the 50-year-old Parker said during the campaign.

That approach helped her defeat progressive rival Helen Gym by more than 25,000 votes. Gym, who advocated for measures including stronger police training and faster 911 response times, was backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and appeared with the lawmakers at a rally on the eve of the election. Gym and her supporters blamed her loss, in part, on late attacks funded by wealthy donors who opposed her progressive policies.

The debate over policing intensified in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police prompted worldwide protests about policing and calls to defund police — a push that the GOP used against Democrats in 2020 elections. While Democrat Joe Biden won that year, some moderate Democrats said the party wasn’t quick enough to denounce it.

In major U.S. cities that are Democratic strongholds, voters also have been divided in recent years.

New York elected Mayor will not seek reelection.

In Philadelphia, Parker was the only Black candidate among the top tier of hopefuls on Tuesday and she was backed by majority Black precincts across the city in both early and Election Day ballots. In addition to 300 more officers, her public safety plan also called for fixing broken streetlights, removing graffiti and investing in programs for at-risk youth.

Parker also defended her support for “Terry stops,” or for officers to use “just and reasonable suspicion” to stop pedestrians. She and other candidates faced criticism including a protest at City Hall last month from those opposed to “stop and frisk.”

The policy has riled the city in the past, with critics saying it was used disproportionately against Black and Brown pedestrians. According to ACLU Pennsylvania, Philadelphia police nearly doubled the number of pedestrian stops during Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration in the 2000s. Civil rights lawyers said at least half of the more than 250,000 such stops in 2009 didn’t meet the legal standard, and almost none resulted in arrest. The ACLU sued to stop the practice, and monitors police use of stop and frisk under a settlement with the city.

“We want to build that relationship and we also want folks to know that there will be zero tolerance for any misuse and or abuse of authority,” Parker said in response to questions about her position. “But a proactive law enforcement presence is a key part of that plan, and I am unapologetic about it.”

Tuesday’s result suggests the salience of police reform may be subsiding from the days when people were protesting in overwhelming numbers, said Michael Sances, a political science professor at Temple University.

”(Crime) has crowded out concerns about overpolicing,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that people have become anti-reform, that can easily be surfaced. It’s just a sign of where the public’s attention is, and where political leaders have moved, and that’s really toward the center.”

Philadelphia saw a record number of homicides in 2021, most of them gun-related. That number fell from 562 to 516 in 2022, but was still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. On Wednesday, an 18-year-old was rearrested in Philadelphia after he escaped from a prison in the city along with another inmate. The man was being held on charges in four slayings.

But in a reminder that there’s no easy trend line on the political dynamics related to crime, voters in Pittsburgh made a turn to the left in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for county prosecutor. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, in office for nearly a quarter century, is trailing challenger Matt Dugan by double digits in unofficial returns, although Republicans launched a write-in campaign for him so the two could face off again in November.

Dugan, the county’s chief public defender, ran on a range of progressive policies, including eliminating cash bail, diverting low-level and nonviolent crimes, and emphasizing mental health and substance abuse treatment.

What happens in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh could have national implications as Pennsylvania will again be a prime battleground in 2024.

Biden has walked a difficult line on crime, policing and the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by both. The president has said it’s possible to bring down crime and also reform criminal justice and policing at the same time, though Republicans claim crime is up because of those reforms.

Biden often says he believes police need better tools and training, calling them heroes who do a difficult job. He’s also been vocal about the need to reform how policing has worked in Black and other nonwhite communities in the wake of the deaths of Floyd and other Black people killed by police.

This week, the Senate voted to overturn a local Washington, D.C. law enacted to improve police accountability that was backed by the district’s Democratic mayor. It was the second time this year that Democrats joined with Republicans to reject a D.C. measure amid high rates of crime. Earlier, Biden agreed with the GOP that some of the measures — such as lowering penalties for carjackings — went too far.

Biden was expected to veto this week’s vote, which would mean upholding the D.C. law, saying that while he doesn’t back all provisions in the D.C. law he does support “commonsense police reforms” that are part of it, such as banning chokeholds, limiting the use of deadly force and improving access to body cameras and requiring additional training.

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Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington and Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.

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Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Philadelphia’s likely next mayor could offer model for how Democrats talk about crime