NYPD Stop and Frisk: Court's Ruling Should Put An End to Controversial Police Practice

U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin could come to a conclusion within weeks regarding the constitutionality of the New York Police Department’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy. Under this policy, policemen are supposed to stop, question, and even sometimes frisk people who look suspicious. The wording of the policy is modeled after the Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, in which the court ruled a police officer could stop and frisk a person with “reasonable suspicion” that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. The Supreme Court also said that frisking could only be allowed when the police officer “has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual.”

In order to make sure that police officers are not simply stopping people just because of their race, NYPD officers are required to complete a write-up every time they stop and search somebody. In these write-ups, they are supposed to point out “specific and articulable facts” that made the person look suspicious (looking sneakily over his shoulder, following someone for a long period of time, etc). But still, in this situation, it is all too easy for the police officer to stop a person on a hunch, and to justify the hunch later with somewhat exaggerated facts. This is dangerous because a hunch is too often aligned with racism, since officers can notice a person’s race much more easily than they can notice other features. In 2012, 55% of the people stopped were African American, and 32% were Hispanic. While these statistics don’t automatically prove racism (African Americans and Hispanics are statistically more likely to commit crimes because of socioeconomic conditions and influences), they do raise alarm bells that racism might be a very influential factor here.

The justification for this policy is the fact that New York City has experienced a huge crime drop since 1990. Only 414 murders occurred in NYC in 2012, the lowest murder count in the city’s history. Some now are calling New York City safer than Boston and Washington, D.C. But we cannot jump to the conclusion that the stop and frisk policy is even significantly responsible for this drop in crime. Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner say that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s, instead, is responsible for the crime drop. Because of abortion, many children who would have been neglected and would have grown up to be criminals were simply never born. We cannot know that there is any causal relationship between the stop-and-frisk policy and NYC’s crime rate drop. After all, the arrest rate is low, too — only 5.37% of the stops from 2004-2009 resulted in arrests.

Some might say that the stop-and-frisk policy protects more African Americans and Hispanics than the NYCLU claims that it violates. After all, there is a higher concentration of blacks and Latinos in lower-income neighborhoods, and crime rates are higher in lower-income neighborhoods. The lower-income neighborhoods, therefore, have received the greatest benefit from the steeply dropping crime rate. But look at this map of the Bronx created by WNYC:

The pink spots here represent the concentrations of stopping and frisking, whereas the green dots represent guns found and confiscated. Bigger green dots mean more guns found and confiscated. The pink areas also represent the poorer areas where crime is more prevalent. This image clearly shows that the areas where police officers actually find guns don’t even correspond to the poorer neighborhoods that the officers search most often. Therefore we can’t even say that the stop and frisk policy protects African Americans and Hispanics more than it harms them.

The stop and frisk policy, as it stands, gives police officers too much leeway to inject racism into the profiling equation. It would also be too naïve to trust all police officers not to be racist. As it stands, the policy needs more boundaries to guard against racism (maybe if the suspect is African American or Hispanic, the officer needs to give certain concrete and defined reasons for stopping them), and it needs more concrete evidence that it is actually effective in preventing and stopping crime. Otherwise, the court needs to put an end to the policy altogether.