It started off as a good night in 2012 for Lawrence Hudson. He was at a holiday party for the Brooklyn radio station where he was interning over his winter break. At just 21 years old, he was the youngest host in the station’s history.
About halfway through the party, Hudson decided to call his mom. It was too loud in the office so he made his way outside, a cup still in hand. There was only ice left in the cup so he threw it in the garbage once he got outside.
That’s when a police cruiser pulled up.
“I was really, really nervous,” Hudson told me by phone. “I’m a Black man in America. I know what the NYPD does.”
The two officers asked Hudson if he had any weapons or drugs on him and then frisked him. Hudson said the cops didn’t explain why they stopped him, and he was not told where he would be touched during the 20-second patdown, But at one point, Hudson said, an officer groped his private areas, thoroughly feeling around between his thighs and his testicles.
“It was a very powerless feeling,” he said. “If they weren’t police officers, somebody definitely would have said it was sexual assault.”
The cops eventually let Hudson go with a ticket for possession of an open container of alcohol, although he said they never checked the cup that he’d thrown out. Two months later, he would get a letter in the mail that the court had automatically dismissed the ticket.
He went back upstairs to the party but “felt empty” the rest of the night. “I was just a college student,” he said. “I was just trying to work hard and do what I had to do for my career. But my experience at work was really never the same after that.”
Under then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the New York Police Department stopped over 6 million people between 2002 and 2013, the overwhelming majority of whom were young men of color. Today with Bloomberg running for the Democratic presidential nomination and ranking third in national primary polls, there’s been an intense reexamination of what is now widely seen as a racist policing tactic. In 2011, at the height of the stop-and-frisk practice, around 685,000 stops were recorded in the city. About 90% involved Black or Latinx individuals, and nearly 90% of the people stopped were found to be innocent ― that is, they weren’t arrested or given a summons.
While stop-and-frisk practices drew a lot of attention because of how the NYPD abused them under the Bloomberg administration, they didn’t start then. The Supreme Court held stop-and-frisk to be a constitutional law enforcement tactic under the Fourth Amendment in the 1968 decision of Terry v. Ohio. To this day, it’s used across the country at the discretion of individual police officers and departments. Police are permitted to stop a person when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. An officer can then frisk that individual to ensure they are not carrying a weapon. Police can also ask to search a person’s pockets or bags, but the person has to consent to that search. If cops find something illegal, they can then arrest the individual and bring them back to the police station where a more invasive strip or cavity search usually is executed in private.
Criticism of stop-and-frisk has focused on the rampant racial profiling that is deeply entwined with the practice. What’s been left out of the conversation, however, is the sexual violation that often comes with it. HuffPost spoke to multiple experts who agreed that frisks are invasive and could be characterized as sexual violence.
“It’s an open secret that frisks also create an opportunity for abuse,” Josephine Ross, a law professor at Howard University and an expert in police misconduct, wrote in a 2018 paper on sexual violence in policing. “Even constitutional frisks can feel like rape to those on the receiving end.”
Even constitutional frisks can feel like rape to those on the receiving end. Josephine Ross, Howard University law professor
Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney and expert in police violence against women of color and LGBTQ people, agreed that even the legal definition of a frisk amounts to “state-sanctioned sexual assault.”
“The way stop-and-frisk was deployed by the NYPD was a virtual declaration that this community is criminalized and you can do anything you want to them,” she told HuffPost. “What we sometimes forget is ‘you can do anything you want to them’ includes sexual violence.”
Men who experience unwanted touching or groping during police frisks ― whether legal or illegal ― are the least likely to disclose or report any type of sexual violation, Ross said, much less to press charges.
Even in my discussions with Hudson, it took multiple conversations for him to characterize his experience as sexual assault ― he first chose to describe what happened as harassment. “I just didn’t want to say it was assault for fear of being embarrassed,” he told me. “I felt very uncomfortable throughout the whole time and felt helpless ― as if I couldn’t say no to what they were doing.”
Hudson described Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy as “a lot of headaches and heartaches for African Americans.” He knew cousins, friends and colleagues ― all primarily young men of color ― who had been stopped and frisked. “I understand that people have to do their jobs,” he said. “But in regards to the officer that night, he didn’t have to search that area. I was no threat, but they still did it.”
For safety purposes, police officers across the country are trained to search for weapons on a person during frisks. They are often warned that people hide weapons and drugs in places that cops may be squeamish about checking and therefore less likely to search, such as a person’s private areas.
“Officers are basically trained to touch people in a way that you would call sexual assault if it wasn’t done by a trained police officer,” said Ross, who has a forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press in which she presents a feminist critique of stop-and-frisk.
Seth Stoughton, a former police officer of five years in Tallahassee, Florida, conducted “easily hundreds” of stop-and-frisks, he told HuffPost. Now an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who looks at policing regulations, Stoughton explained in a 2017 paper how he used to execute frisks:
I would start at either the front or rear center of the suspect’s midsection and run my fingers along and beneath their belt, then frisk their waistband, front and back pockets, groin, and buttocks. The groin and buttocks bear special mention, as it had been drilled into me in training that criminals knew and took advantage of the fact that officers were naturally uncomfortable searching these areas. The potential for avoiding discovery made those areas particularly attractive as hiding spots, which in turn made it particularly important for me to search there. To do so, I would make the same motions as I’ve just described, reaching around over the front of the thighs and doing the same from the back, running my hand along clothing between suspects’ legs starting on one side and making my way across. Inevitably, this involved contact (through gloves and clothing) with suspects’ buttocks and genitalia, but that contact was essential for an effective frisk.
Stoughton told HuffPost that the frisks “were very invasive” because he was routinely “making contact with genitals.” At the same time, he said, frisks were a mundane and admittedly forgettable part of the job for police.
“The cop’s interest is ‘I’ve got to make sure that you don’t have any weapons.’ And yeah, that is going to require me to touch your breasts or to touch your penis or testicles or to put pressure on clothing that’s going to make contact with your anus,” he explained. “But as a working cop, my perspective was that’s just what I need to do to do an effective frisk.”
It was only after he became a law professor that Stoughton realized the practice he was trained to employ as a police officer could be perceived as problematic and even violating. “It really wasn’t until later that I started to think, ‘Oh, shit, maybe there are other perspectives on this,’” he said. “Maybe someone didn’t take my incidental contact with their genitals as the incidental interaction that I thought it was.”
Stoughton said it was common practice at the police agency where he worked to alert the person where they were going to be touched before they were touched ― both to be informative and to ensure that the situation didn’t escalate. He cautioned that not every police agency abides by this guideline, and he doesn’t think that the NYPD took the correct precautions to put citizens at ease during frisks.
“It wasn’t always lawful. It wasn’t particularly effective. And it wasn’t rightful,” Stoughton said of the use of stop-and-frisk under Bloomberg’s administration. “It was undermining rather than building the type of community relationship that effective policing really depends on.”
Beyond New York City, many other police forces have used and continue to use stop-and-frisk today. In September 2017, M.B. Cottingham, a Black man, was hanging out with some friends in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood when police stopped them. When one officer asked Cottingham about a bulge in his sock, Cottingham pulled out a city-legal amount of marijuana and volunteered to let the officer frisk him, hoping it would de-escalate the situation. During the frisk, however, the cop went far beyond what’s allowed during a patdown under Terry v. Ohio: He grabbed Cottingham’s genitals and repeatedly thrust his fingers into Cottingham’s buttocks and anus.
Warning: Some viewers may find the below video to be graphic and triggering.
Cottingham protested and told the officer: “You just stuck your finger in my ass, man. Don’t do that.” Instead of stopping, the officer put Cottingham’s hands in cuffs and continued probing Cottingham’s genitals.
“Once he thrust his finger in my bottom, I wanted to turn around and punch him in his face,” Cottingham, who later sued the officer, told the American Civil Liberties Union. “But the thought that kept running across my mind is, they gonna kill you. I thought about teddy bears being up under the tree or becoming a hashtag. I have kids that I have to live for.”
The type of sexual violation that comes with frisks happens to women and LGBTQ people too, especially women and queer people of color. Police sometimes assume that Black transgender women are sex workers because they’re trans and use frisks to fondle private areas to confirm their own ideas about gender identity, said Ritchie, the police misconduct attorney. In widely reported cases, women of color have been stopped and illegally strip-searched in public. In 2016, San Antonio police pulled out a woman’s tampon in an unconstitutional cavity search in public while allegedly looking for weapons or drugs.
Ritchie, a New York native, said she knows many women of color in the city who have been sexually harassed by police, including those who had police use a stop to get their phone number and then harassed them to go on a date via text message. During the Bloomberg years, it was so well known that stop-and-frisks could be sexually invasive that women often called them “stop and gropes,” Ritchie said.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity for abuse when you have a program like that ― increased frequency in contact, increased intensity of contact, increased possibility for extortion or forced sexual activity and certainly sexual harassment,” she added.
Additionally, these stops can create opportunities for more pervasive sexual assault. The most glaring example is former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was convicted on 18 counts of rape, sexual battery and other charges for using his authority as a cop to sexually abuse women. Almost all of the 13 survivors who testified during his 2015 trial were poor Black women with criminal histories. He approached most of them using the stop-and-frisk tactic.
Although Bloomberg disavowed stop-and-frisk and apologized for how his administration had used it just a week after he announced his presidential run, that hasn’t magically halted the controversial practice across the country. Most police officers may think of stop-and-frisks like Stoughton did ― as a mundane and forgettable part of the job. But what about the victims of stop-and-frisk who don’t find the interaction so easily forgettable?
Hudson, now a law student at Howard University, said he didn’t realize how badly he was being violated that night back in 2012. “It definitely traumatized me,” he told me. “I don’t like police officers, even to this day.”
Toward the end of one conversation, I asked Hudson if he ever did call his mom that night. “I never told her what happened,” he said. “I was too ashamed and embarrassed to really have a conversation with her.”