Stop and Frisk Failure

While watching the first presidential debate, it was refreshing to see the candidates asked about criminal justice issues. But it was appalling to hear Donald Trump again propose increasing stop-and-frisk policies as a way to address crime. This proposal should be recognized for what it is: a call to double down on an ineffective tool that has been used systematically to racially profile and violate the rights of people of color. Here is some context to fully understand what stop-and-frisk means.

The Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect all of us from unreasonable searches by the police. This means that outside of urgent or emergency situations, if the police are not arresting you, they may not just search you without your permission unless they have a warrant. To get a search warrant, the police must convince a court that there is “probable cause” to believe that there was a crime and that objects related to the crime will be found if the cops get to do their search. Courts require the police to provide specific facts, not just a hunch or suspicion, to justify the basis for the warrant.

These protections against unreasonable law enforcement searches exist for good reason. Police searches are frequently very violating and humiliating. Imagine: in front of everyone, the police delay you, pat down your body, run their hands along your private areas, and reach into your pockets. And, maybe you’re carrying personal items that are legal, but that you do not necessarily want to share with the world (like condoms, tampons, prescription medications, personal trinkets, etc.).

But with stop-and-frisk, the police can skirt these more stringent protections I’ve just described. Using what is known as a “Terry stop” (named for the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio), the law allows the police to stop and question anyone when they have a “reasonable suspicion” about the person’s participation in criminal activity. And then, if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person they stopped might be armed, the cop can frisk that person for weapons. This is not considered a full search, so warrant requirements don’t apply, and the standards for frisking under these circumstances are much looser. As you can imagine, the more subjective standard and the lack of judicial oversight leaves a whole lot of room for fudging.

Here’s what stop-and-frisk looked like in New York City, before a court found the way NYPD was using the technique to be unconstitutional. Between January 2004 and June 2012, the NYPD conducted over 4.4 million Terry stops. The officers’ justifications for making the stops were often vague claims that could apply to anyone, like the person was in a “high crime area” or made a “furtive movement.” Of those 4.4 million, 83% of the people stopped were black or Latino, and only 10% were white. Notably, weapons were found in only about 1% of the stops. Contraband other than weapons was found in only about 2% of the stops. That means that at least 98% of the frisks yielded nothing whatsoever illegal. That’s millions of innocent people who were stopped and frisked by the police for no reason.

In looking at one five year period of time in New York City, the court found that when the police took action after a stop, blacks were 30% more likely to be arrested than whites for the same suspected crime. During that same period, blacks were 14% more likely – and Latinos 9% more likely – than whites to be subjected to the use of force during the stops. So there is a very real basis for the perception that stop-and-frisk is just a way of harassing and violating communities of color. When you hear the calls for more stop-and-frisk, understand that the “law and order” it is supposedly imposing is a fiction. It is a way of violating the rights of blacks and Latinos, in the name of the government. It is this very type of racist policy that drives wedges between whole groups of Americans and police. That such a racist policy is promoted by a presidential candidate of a major American party speaks loudly about the tremendous work that needs to be done to repair our long history of racism.


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