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  • Kristen Abitabile

Stop-and-Frisk Along the Campaign Trail

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Stop-and-frisk is undoubtedly a hot topic in this campaign season. Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump is a proponent of reviving the controversial procedure, stating, "If you did some of that in Chicago as an example, where you had 3,000 shootings since January 1, 3000 people were shot and if you did stop-and-frisk there it would be so great for their community." Trump was referring to New York City’s debated effectiveness of the practice, which was declared to be “racially discriminatory” and its tactics ruled unconstitutional at the end of 2013. And although the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit eventually remanded the deciding case (Floyd, et al v. City of New York) back to District Court, the City dropped its Appeal.

But notable opponents, such as Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, denounce the use of the procedure. In September, Attorney General Loretta Lynch noted that the real problem lies in the “widespread indiscriminate use of that practice, particularly when it was not generating success from a law enforcement perspective, in either leads or tips or firearms, and the resulting lack of trust that it generated." President Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing reported that the program was harassing law-abiding citizens, with slight positive results.

Stop-and-frisk is defined as “a brief, non-intrusive, police stop of a suspect.” Under the Fourth Amendment, police must have a “reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed before stopping a suspect. If the police reasonably suspect the person is armed and dangerous, they may conduct a frisk, a quick pat-down of the person’s outer clothing.” In New York City, police were stopping hundreds of thousands of people, most who were young African-American and Latino men who had not committed crimes. Of those arrested, a marginal portion was charged with serious crimes or felonies. Trump’s position, that the program has had enormous, positive ramifications, is distorted. Trump, amongst many other proponents, believe that the program has a direct link to New York City’s lowering crime rates. However, statistics show that not only has murder declined, but so have six other categories of major crimes including rape, robbery, and assault. At the same time, the number of stops being conducted has also decreased. Also, on a national scale, crime itself has decreased significantly since the 1990s (arguably, when the stop-and-frisk program appeared to be more popular).

So why attempt at reviving a practice that has no empirical data to support its negative affects? Just last month, FBI Director James Comey explained to Congress that stop-and-frisk could be beneficial when employed correctly. Comey explained that whereas this technique could be effective, it could also be “a source of estrangement for a community.” Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton also defended it, stating that the Presidential nominees have mischaracterized the practice. The practice itself is not unconstitutional, but the racially discriminatory manner in which it was administered is unconstitutional.

Stop-and-frisks, or “reasonable suspicion stops,” are not inherently bad; however, the stops being regularly conducted need attention and possible reformation. First, it is important to note that a community’s needs vary from city to city, and are largely based on the socioeconomic and demographic makeup, as well as geographic location. What works in New York City may not be appropriate in Tulsa or Seattle. Implementation may not always need to be the same across the board, because certain methods might not have any legitimate effect on the crime it seeks to reduce. Next, police departments might consider whether stops based on reasonable suspicion should be articulated to the individual. Communication between officers and citizens is crucial, and an individual may not feel as harassed or disrespected if he understood the nature of the stop. The average layperson may not understand the difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause. A helpful policy might be one that requires officers to briefly explain their legal authority to stop an individual. Also, policy branches of major city police departments should develop practices that reduce any kind of racial profiling or discrimination. This could be achieved through several ways, including a limitation on officer discretion as to whom they stop and when. Officers might be required to file a report explaining the circumstances or situation that led up to the stop, outlining their reasonable, articulable suspicion. More guidance and comprehensive parameters may lessen the likelihood of implicit bias creeping into the officer’s mind. Finally, departments can encourage diverse recruitment; emphasize training programs that encourage awareness; and reward positive community interaction. Additionally, reaching out to and engaging with the youth in communities and establishing relationships with community leaders are crucial to strengthening public trust. Ultimately, law enforcement protects and serves the community, and a mutual respect with the citizens should arguably decrease the amount of discriminatory or bias-motivated interactions.


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