|Dr. Tara Quinlan|
Stop and frisk is a police tactic authorized by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. The law allows police to stop and frisk someone if they have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. The law also permits these rules to be applied to moving vehicles.
Just because the law allows police to stop and frisk doesn’t mean they should. People who’ve been stopped and frisked report feeling intimidated, humiliated, embarrassed, and often fear for their safety during these encounters. People like Trump argue that these human costs are a necessary tradeoff because stops and frisks reduce crime. But this claim is not supported by the evidence. Data is extremely sparse that stops and frisks are very effective. Over two decades we’ve reviewed studies from vehicle stops on the New Jersey Turnpike to U.S. airports to the streets of Boston and London — revealing very low "hit rates," i.e. rates of finding drugs, weapons or other contraband. This means police can spend a lot of time conducting stops and frisks, but routinely turn up nothing.
And Trump’s model for stop and search success — New York City — has seen some of the least effective stops and frisks ever recorded. The New York Police Department's own figures show that of 5 million stop and frisks conducted between 2003 and 2013, the NYPD only found weapons in 2.0 percent of stops, and guns in 0.2 percent of stops. While a small minority were arrested, 88.1 percent of stops led to no arrest or summons, meaning 4.3 million people were subjected to intrusive police encounters when they were minding their own business. These low success rates make the stops at best arbitrary and without adequate reasonable suspicion. But the New York City case also suggests that there were frequently other unconstitutional reasons for these stops.
In fact, a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of black and Latino New Yorkers accused the NYPD of using unconstitutional racial profiling to make its stops and frisks. Evidence showed that of 4.4 million NYPD stops between January 2004 and June 2012, over 80 percent were blacks and Latinos. The U.S. Department of Justice was so concerned about the NYPD’s practices that it took the unusual step of submitting a legal brief, arguing that unconstitutional stops and frisks undermined public safety by reducing public cooperation and support for police. The judge ultimately found that the NYPD had racially profiled blacks and Latinos with its unconstitutional stops and frisks.
In addition to often being ineffective and unconstitutional, stops and frisks have clear impacts on police-community relations and effective policing. The tactic was a major cause for concern for President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a 2014 group comprised of police, academic, government and community members seeking to strengthen community policing and police-community relations. After hearing from dozens of witnesses, the task force concluded that stops and frisks are particularly damaging to police-community relations and fuel perceptions of racial profiling. The task force recommended that police end aggressive warrior policing approaches that treat communities like enemies, and instead position themselves as guardians of local communities, guided by fairness and legitimacy in police-community encounters.
Trump has also misjudged police support for widespread use of stops and frisks. Organizations like the IACP and others have not lobbied to dramatically increase stops and frisks across cities like Chicago because it does not efficiently use police resources. Since police stops and frisks are extraordinarily labor intensive and rarely result in arrests or find contraband, they exhaust scarce resources that could be employed more strategically. Many police also recognize that the detrimental impacts of stops and frisks make their jobs harder. When communities feel targeted by police and treated unfairly, they refuse to report crimes, cooperate with investigations or provide police with tips. Organizations like the IACP have recognized that the serious community costs can make local policing less effective, and that these effects can last generations.
Beyond the many negative consequences of aggressive stop and frisk, there’s also no real evidence that it’s needed to reduce crime. When New York City dropped its stops and searches by 90 percent following the court’s 2013 racial profiling decision, violent crime dropped and has remained low over the past five years. And cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis, Newark, Boston and others that haven’t heavily relied on stops and frisks have seen similar drops in crime. The Department of Justice has supported initiatives in these and other cities showing much better crime reduction results, including hot spots policing and pulling levers (aka Ceasefire). But these approaches are not cheap or easy, and require long-term investment in working with communities.
The reality is when police aggressively use stops and frisks, everyone loses. Not only does the emotional toll of these interactions remain with community members for years, but these practices hurt police too. The lasting damage of unconstitutional stops and frisks makes police work much more difficult. Good policing focuses on respecting and protecting communities. Unconstitutional stops and frisks are the opposite of good policing because they erode the essential police-community relationships that make our communities stronger and safer.
Dr. Tara Lai Quinlan is a U.S. lawyer and legal academic based in the U.K. specializing in criminal law, policing and racial profiling issues. She most recently served as a lecturer in law at University of Sheffield.
Deborah Ramirez is a professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and the co- author of the Department of Justice’s "Guide to Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems." She previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston.
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 Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968)