Stop and Frisk Law is Racist and the Shame of New York City

Editor's Note: For a report from the End Stop and Frisk March on Father's Day in New York City, which drew 10,000 protesters against the law, see Mahlet Seyoum's live coverage here.

Stop (Question) and Frisk is a great example of an ineffective policy that, under the guise of upholding public safety, actively isolates and violates already disempowered communities of color. 

The Center for Constitutional Rights describes stops and frisk as “the practice by which a police officer initiates a stop of an individual on the street allegedly based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”

Recently, this policy has received a lot of media and community criticism as stops and frisks have reached an all-time high, and incidents of inappropriate and deadly contact with NYPD officers, such as the case of Ramarley Graham, are becoming more and more visible in the mainstream media. This NYPD policy has been in effect since 2002, but unfortunately awareness is only now on the rise in communities outside of the ones immediately affected. 

In 2011, 88 percent of all stops and frisks did not result in an arrest or a summons being given. Blacks and Latinos made up 84 percent of all those stopped, although they make up respectively 23 and 29 percent of New York City’s total population. Furthermore, NYPD officers are more likely to use physical force against Blacks and Latinos during stops; in 2011, the NYPD used force against Blacks 76,483 times, and only 9,765 times against Whites. 

Any policy based solely on subjective bias is a bad policy. Officers’ definitions of “reasonable suspicion” vary widely, so this law gives individuals the power to stop and frisk according to their own biases. In a New York Times study that analyzes the Stop and Frisk policy between 2006-2010, the cited reasons for NYPD stops varied from “furtive movement” (44.1% of all stops), “fits description” (16.7%), and “Other” (20.2%) – all of which are reasons which are very general and subjective.

While other statistics show that the majority of stops and frisks occur in communities with the most violent crime rates, such as Brownsville in Brooklyn, the practice creates more friction, mistrust, and fear of authority (specifically the NYPD) than it actually stops crime. These same communities that are being targeted by the stop and frisk policy are the most disenfranchised, the ones with the least economic resources, and those who are already scarred by systematic racial profiling and major incidents of police brutality. Needless to say, there is an abundant amount of literature and various studies that link poverty and crime and could help provide the foundation for a better, alternative policy. 

Over the past 10 years, the number of violent crimes reported in New York City dropped nearly 20%. Despite this information, Stop and Frisk rates continue to grow rapidly. According to NYCLU data there was a 14% increase in stops and frisks between 2010-2011, which is striking compared to the increase in 2009-2010 of 3.4%.  

NYPD and politicians such as Mayor Bloomberg claim that Stop and Frisk keeps weapons off the streets, but in fact, weapons were actually recovered in only one percent of all stops. Contraband, in general, was recovered in only two percent in 2011. The police yielded 780 guns last year, roughly one in 1,000 stops. Ironically, in 2005, stops made of Whites proved to be slightly more likely to yield contraband. Bloomberg defended these diminishing rates of gun yields with the claim that the NYPD is preventing crimes because they have made it ‘too hot to carry’.

In an letter to the editor of the New York Times, the writers point out that “focusing only on gun seizures in stop-and-frisks obscures a larger reality: the New York Police Department seizes thousands of guns each year by other means … 3,200 guns were seized by means other than stop-and-frisks, four times more than were seized in street stops.”

In short, shootings aren’t decreasing by nearly enough to justify the increase in stops and frisks. From 2002, shootings in New York City have only decreased by 3.9%. Quite frankly, these statistics do not justify Mayor Bloomberg’s claim that this strategy is known to save lives.

There is no conclusive evidence directly linking the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policy to the overall decrease in crime rates or to the slight decrease in shootings. With this in mind, the statistics that we do have regarding who is stopped and what is actually recovered from these stops show that this policy is ineffecient and unacceptable. 

Our generation is increasingly beginning to call for better and more efficient alternatives to Stop and Frisk, as well as better oversight of the NYPD, and for the policing of the police. We are willing to take to the streets and flood all channels of media until our voices are not only heard but result in real reform.

See 10 photos of the New York City protests here.

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Justine Gonzalez

Justine Gonzalez is currently pursuing her masters degree in Urban Policy from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. She has her BA in Sociology and Spanish from Smith College. While at Smith, she was a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow which allowed her to do independent research on the relationship between race, nation building policies and education. Justine is currently living in New York City where she was born and raised. Her interests range from immigration policy, social justice, race, class and gender inequality.

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