Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (L) speaks during a panel discussion on gun violence at St. Paul's Baptist Church on April 20, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
By Sam Frizell / Philadelphia
April 21, 2016

Hillary Clinton met in Philadelphia with black mothers whose children have died at the hands of police Wednesday, promising to reform the criminal justice system and telling them that the evidence for “stop-and-frisk” police tactics “doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.”

But the former Secretary of State, who has made reforming the criminal justice system a central part of her platform, did not reject stop-and-frisk outright, as some of her liberal supporters have done.

“I do think the evidence people use to justify stop-and-frisk doesn’t hold up under scrutiny,” Clinton told a room of mostly black listeners at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, part of her most extended public comments on the controversial practice to date. Police “should be looking for probable cause.”

“Some people will be stopped,” she continued, “but it will not be the kind of wholesale stopping you have seen in too many places.”

Stop-and-frisk has been touted by police forces in cities like New York and Philadelphia, where proponents say stopping suspicious people and patting them for weapons has reduced crime.

But the practice has come under heavy fire from civil rights activists, and stop-and-frisk has been shown to disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos and result in higher incarceration rates for minorities.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—who has endorsed Clinton—promised during his mayoral campaign in 2013 to “end the era of stop-and-frisk.” The city severely limited stop-and-frisk after a federal judge ruled that the tactic violated the rights of minorities, and the number of stops has declined precipitously there.

Clinton’s approach on Wednesday was more measured. “I would hope that the federal government” encourages local police departments “to begin to retrain and change the mindset and practices in police departments to get back to a much more community-grounded approach toward trying to prevent crime,” Clinton told the mostly black audience.

“Everyone knows we have to prevent crime, but we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work,” she continued. “I think federal government can play a much bigger role in providing both the carrots and sticks to local departments so we can do what works better than what maybe is just the lowest-common denominator that people fall back on and just keep doing whether or not the evidence is there.”

Much of Clinton’s campaign has focused around reforming the criminal justice system through measures such as demilitarizing police departments, reducing mandatory sentencing and eliminating the disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine. Clinton has won black voters in overwhelming numbers, but has often received scrutiny for crime policies her husband implemented in the 1990s.

An aide said that Clinton “has always expressed concern about how stop-and-frisk has been implemented” and pointed out that she co-sponsored legislation as senator that would have banned law enforcement agencies from using racial profiling.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also released a detailed criminal justice reform platform. Donald Trump, Clinton’s likely opponent in the general election, has defended police departments.

“We have to give strength and power back to the police,” he said last year. “You’re always going to have bad apples … [but] the police have to regain some control of this crime wave and killing wave that we have in this country.”

Two people asked Clinton about stop-and-frisk during the event. One asked whether she would consider appointing a Supreme Court Justice who would overturn Terry v. Ohio, a landmark Supreme Court case that paved the way for stop-and-frisk.

“Anybody I would consider appointing to the Court would be somebody who wants to take a hard look at what has worked and what has not worked and that includes standard for probable for cause,” Clinton said.

At Wednesday’s event, Clinton listened to the stories of the mothers of Dontre Hamilton, Sean Bell, Brandon Tate Brown and Sandra Bland, all of whom were killed by police or died in police custody. The mothers emotionally retold their stories and called for police reforms.

For all Clinton’s outreach to black voters, there remain deep skeptics who believe the 1994 crime bill President Bill Clinton signed created a new era of mass incarceration. In the evening, shortly after the event with the mothers at St. Paul’s Church, Clinton held a rally at the music venue Fillmore Philly, where she was interrupted repeatedly by black protesters chanting “She’s killing black people!”

Megan Malachi, a local teacher and one of the protesters, said her mother was at the event in the church earlier. “(Clinton) went there for a photo-op,” Malachi said. “She is just trying to save face and we all know that. I don’t think that anything that comes out of Hillary’s mouth is sincere.”

The pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church, Leslie Callahan, told Clinton they were counting on a firm strategy to address criminal justice reforms.

“The probability that we’re going to hold you accountable for all the stuff that’s on your website is 100%,” Callahan said to cheers in agreement. “Please know that we are determined. … I promise you if you are elected you going to hear from us.”

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