Putting an End to the Stop-and-Frisk Debate

The "not guilty" verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has further heightened the ongoing debate about the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices, because of the clear parallels between how young men of color are viewed and treated.

Unfortunately, watching the stop-and-frisk debate is like watching two sides arguing in
different languages. Opponents of the practice assert that there are too many stop-and-frisks, many of which are conducted unconstitutionally. Proponents respond that stop-and-frisk practices reduce crime. Each side is making its own points to its own audience, but neither is communicating with the other, and the clear middle ground is never discussed. And although the decibel level of the debate would make you think otherwise, most of the basic facts are not in dispute.

First, stop-and-frisk practices reduce crime. If you think that you are likely to be stopped and frisked at any time, you will be less likely to carry a knife or a gun, and less likely to carry drugs that you just bought, or intend to sell.

Second, there are far too many stop-and-frisks occurring in New York City. From 2002 to 2012, the number of stop-and-frisks increased almost 550 percent, from 97,296 to 532,911. The vast majority of these stops occurred in minority communities, such as in East Harlem where my organization is located, which had the most stop-and-frisks in Manhattan.

Third, NYPD statistics make clear that a significant number of frisks are being conducted unconstitutionally. I say "frisks" rather than "stop-and-frisks," because the "stop" and the "frisk" are two different acts. Indeed, the term "frisk" itself can mean either of two things, each with its own constitutional requirements.

The police can conduct a "pat down" frisk of the individual's outer clothing only if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is armed and dangerous, but weapons are found in less than 2 percent of the frisks. A full search, which includes emptying the individual's pockets, is permitted only if the officer has "probable cause" to believe that the individual can be arrested for committing a crime, but only about 12 percent of frisks result in arrests. If the police actually had a constitutional basis for each frisk, more guns would be recovered and more individuals would be arrested.

Indeed, if you ask police officers about the circumstances in which they conduct stop-and-frisks, they will admit that they frisk people without sufficient cause. For example, if the police see several known members of a youth gang walking towards the territory of another gang, they will be stopped and frisked. Not because the officers have the constitutional right to do so (e.g., reasonable suspicion to believe the individuals are armed), but because based on their experience, they know it is possible that a crime will be committed. Police officers are trained to stop crime, and this is one way they do so.

Which brings us to another undeniable fact in the stop-and-frisk debate: The vast majority of police officers are dedicated, well-intentioned public servants who put their lives on the line every day, and the overwhelming majority of their frisks -- both the constitutional ones and the unconstitutional ones -- are intended solely to protect the public, and themselves.

This, of course, is not the viewpoint of those being stopped and frisked -- particularly those who have been stopped and frisked repeatedly and unconstitutionally. And since nine out of 10 persons stopped and frisked are persons of color, the view that these stop-and-frisks are being conducted based on race is inevitable and understandable -- as is the outrage of the minority youth who are subjected to hundreds of thousands of frisks each year.

This complete disconnect -- police officers frisking individuals in an effort to protect the public, and members of minority communities believing that they have been frisked for racist reasons -- is what leads to the corrosive relationship that currently exists between the police and minority communities. Ironically, the overuse of stop-and-frisks as a police tactic has sown a distrust of the police that makes reducing crime even harder, because so many individuals do not trust the police enough to provide information they have about crimes.

And it has also led to efforts to "solve" the problem through legislation, such as the two "stop-and-frisk bills" that the mayor recently vetoed, but which are expected to become law when the City Council overrides prior to the August 22 deadline. The first bill (Intro. 1079) is often discussed as creating an 'independent inspector general" to investigate the NYPD, but it does nothing of the sort, and instead simply sets forth explicitly powers that the NYC Commissioner of Investigation already has with respect to the NYPD. The second bill (Intro. 1080) authorizes any individual to sue the NYPD or any police officer who allegedly engages in "bias-based profiling." The bills will neither reduce the number of stop-and-frisks, nor have an impact on crime rates.

The real tragedy is that virtually everyone agrees that the best way to reduce crime and abide by the constitution is not through massive numbers of stop-and-frisks that turn the community against the police, but through true "community policing" in which the police officers become a part of the community, and local residents work with the officers to prevent crimes from occurring and help solve the crimes that do occur. This means encouraging all police officers to attend community events, having officers explain to local residents what they do and why, investing in youth programs as an alternative to gangs, re-building the community's trust in our officers, and offering these officers the recognition they deserve.

The incoming mayor and his or her Police Commissioner -- whoever that might be -- would do well to focus on both community protection and community engagement, because the two are inextricably linked.