Does Stop-And-Frisk Work? Debating A Controversial Police Tactic

May 22, 2013
Originally published on May 21, 2013 4:42 pm

A federal court is set to decide on the lawfulness of stop-and-frisk, New York City's polarizing policing strategy meant to stop gun violence. The policy gives police officers wide discretion to stop, question, and in some cases, pat down people they suspect are carrying illegal guns.

But the city's stats for stop-and-frisk are jarring: of the 533,000 stops made last year, nearly nine in 10 were black or Latino. (There have been nearly 5 million stops in the city over the last decade.) Only about 10 percent of those stops were subsequently given summonses or arrested, and the stops yielded a total of 780 weapons.

City officials, including the Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have long argued that those numbers can be chalked up to the makeups of the neighborhoods with the most gun violence and say that the victims of gun violence are overwhelmingly black and Latino. "I can't imagine any rational person saying that the techniques are not working and that we should stop them," Bloomberg said.

But critics say that the stops violate the civil rights and essentially criminalize entire neighborhoods.

Our friends at Tell Me More are getting into the weeds of stop-and-frisk in the first of a two-part series. Today, they talk to some of the policy's vocal critics. Tomorrow, they'll speak to some of the policy's defenders inside the NYPD and elsewhere.

David Harris of the University of Pittsburgh Law School said that the policy is ineffective, if not counterproductive to policing:

Targeting them based on their racial or ethnic appearance is not a successful crime fighting strategy, despite what the Commissioner and the Mayor seem to believe. What they say is, 'See it's working!' By this method, they say, of instilling fear in people – 'We don't want people to carry their guns, that's why they do this.' So, they win either way. Targeting people based on race or ethnicity has never been shown – not in New York, not in anywhere else where this has been statistically tracked — to be the successful way to get guns, to get drugs, to get bad guys, because what you do, is you force people overall to pay an enormous cost, across an entire racial or ethnic group, for the actions of a very few people, and it also leaves out the fact that you could certainly use other methods, as other cities do, to force crime down that don't rely on this kind of very aggressive stop and frisk activity that embarrasses and humiliates, and most importantly drives people away from police.

Delores Jones Brown of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, suggested the NYPD employ different tactics that might be just as effective:

There are other policing tactics – something called "hot spots policing" that's being used by the NYPD that doesn't necessarily involve stop-and-frisk that researchers have found have in fact contributed to the crime reduction in the city. So, one of my suggestions recently has been to do more of that, and less of stop-and-frisk, because we can see a direct causal relationship between that kind of a practice – hot spots policing or something else, where we focus on the few dangerous people that can be identified individually and remove those people from the street, while leaving the law-abiding people alone.

She added:

In my view, the department is engaging in something I call "appearance profiling." And so, if they see a young Black or Latino male in certain types of clothing, like a hoodie or sagging pants, and they appear to be between certain ages, they automatically suspect them of criminality. But there's nothing criminal about being young, being Black, being Latino, being male and wearing sagging pants or a hooded sweatshirt or wearing particular colors that the police assume are gang-related.

Do you have any experience with stop-and-frisk? We'd love to hear about them in the comments, or tweet to us at #tmmfrisk.

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