Stop-and-frisk in New York City
The stop-question-and-frisk program, or stop-and-frisk, in New York City, is a New York City Police Department practice of temporarily detaining, questioning, and at times searching civilians on the street for weapons and other contraband. This is what is known in other places in the United States as the Terry stop. The rules for stop, question, and frisk are found in the state's criminal procedure law section 140.50, and are based on the decision of the US Supreme Court in the case of Terry v. Ohio.
12,404 stops were made in 2016. The stop-and-frisk program has previously taken place on a much wider scale. Between 2003 and 2013, over 100,000 stops were made per year, with 685,724 people being stopped at the height of the program in 2011. The program became the subject of a racial profiling controversy. The vast majority, 90% in 2017, of those stopped were African-American or Latino, most of whom were aged 14–24. Furthermore, 70% of all those stopped were later found to be innocent. The racial disparity persists even after controlling for precinct variability and race-specific estimates of crime participation. Research suggests that stop-and-frisk had few effects, if any, on crime in New York City.
The legal power for the police to stop and frisk members of the public comes from English law. Common law states that, without legislative changes, a police officer has the power to stop, question, and frisk suspects given reasonable circumstances. Based on a standard that holds less than probable cause, the power is granted upon the standard of reasonable suspicion. It is a question of circumstances of each individual case that determines whether reasonable detention and investigation is validated.
The United States Supreme Court made an important ruling on the use of stop-and-frisk in the 1968 case Terry v. Ohio, hence why the stops are also referred to as Terry stops. While frisks were arguably illegal, until then, a police officer could search only someone who had been arrested, unless a search warrant had been obtained. In the cases of Terry v. Ohio, Sibron v. New York, and Peters v. New York, the Supreme Court granted limited approval in 1968 to frisks conducted by officers lacking probable cause for an arrest in order to search for weapons if the officer believes the subject to be dangerous. The Court's decision made suspicion of danger to an officer grounds for a "reasonable search."
In the early 1980s, if a police officer had reasonable suspicion of a possible crime, he or she had the authority to stop someone and ask questions. If, based on the subject's answers, the suspicion level did not escalate to probable cause for an arrest, the person would be released immediately. That was only a "stop-and-question". The "frisk" part of the equation did not come into play except on two cases: if possession of a weapon was suspected, or reasonable suspicion of a possible crime escalated to probable cause to arrest for an actual crime based on facts developed after the initial stop-and-question. That all changed in the 1990s, when CompStat was developed under then-Police Commissioner William Bratton. High-ranking police officials widely incorporated the "stop, question and frisk".
Use of stop-and-frisk is often associated with "broken windows" policing. The "broken windows theory" is the theory that low-level crime and disorder creates an environment which encourages more serious crimes. Among the key proponents of the theory are George L. Kelling and William Bratton, who was Chief of the New York City Transit Police from 1990 to 1992 and Commissioner of the New York City Police Department from 1994 to 1996. Mayor Rudy Giuliani hired Bratton for the latter job and endorsed broken windows policing. Giuliani and Bratton presided over an expansion of the New York police department and a crackdown on low-level crimes, including fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists, and "squeegee men" (who had been wiping windshields of stopped cars and aggressively demanding payment).
Bratton and Kelling argue that stop-and-frisk has been wrongly conflated with broken windows policing. They argue that stop-and-frisk is a short-term tactic for preventing a potential crime, whereas broken windows policing is a long-term tactic that requires the police to engage with communities.
When police officers make stops, they fill out a form explaining the situation and details of the stop. After the officer goes off duty, these forms are then entered into a database. There are two ways the NYPD reports this stop-and-frisk data: a paper report released quarterly and an electronic database released annually. In 2002, there were 97,296 "stop and frisk" stops made by New York police officers; 82.4% resulted in no fines or convictions. The number of stops increased dramatically in 2008 to over half a million, 88% of which did not result in any fine or conviction, peaking in 2011 to 685,724 stops, again with 88% resulting in no conviction. On average, from 2002 to 2013, the number of individuals stopped without any convictions was 87.6%.
Part of the stop-question-and-frisk program is executed under Operation Clean Halls, a program in which private property owners grant officers prior permission to enter a property for enforcement against criminal activity.
Some NYPD officers have objected publicly to the department's use of stop-question-and-frisk paperwork as a performance metric, which they claim encourages officers to overuse the practice and creates public hostility. Activists have accused the NYPD of encouraging stops through quotas, which department representatives have denied.
In the vast majority of cases, no evidence of wrongdoing is found, and the stopped person is let go.
New York police officer Adrian Schoolcraft made extensive recordings in 2008 and 2009, which documented orders from NYPD officials to search and arrest black people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Schoolcraft, who brought accusations of misconduct to NYPD investigators, was transferred to a desk job and then involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. In 2010, Schoolcraft sent his tapes to the Village Voice, which publicized them in a series of reports. Schoolcraft alleges that the NYPD has retaliated against him for exposing information about the stop and frisk policy. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and The Bronx Defenders filed a federal class action against this program.
In response to allegations that the program unfairly targets African-American and Hispanic-American individuals, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stated that it is because African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are more likely to be violent criminals and victims of violent crime.
On June 17, 2012, several thousand people marched silently down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue from lower Harlem to Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse in protest of the stop-question-and-frisk policy. The mayor refused to end the program, contending that the program reduces crime and saves lives.
In early July 2012, stop-question-and-frisk protesters who videotaped police stops in New York City were targeted by police for their activism. A "wanted"-style poster hung in a police precinct headquarters, without any allegation of criminal activity, accused one couple of being "professional agitators" whose "purpose is to portray officers in a negative way and too [sic] deter officers from conducting their responsibilities." Police officers later surveilled and recorded the exit of persons from a "stop stop-and-frisk" meeting held at the couple's residence, allegedly in response to an emergency call of loitering and trespass.
In October 2012, The Nation published an obscenity-filled audio recording that revealed two NYPD officers conducting a hostile and racially charged stop-and-frisk of an innocent teenager from Harlem. Following its upload, the recording soon turned viral, as it triggered outrage and "shed unprecedented light" on the practice of stop-and-frisk.
In Floyd v. City of New York, decided on August 12, 2013, US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that stop and frisk had been used in an unconstitutional manner and directed the police to adopt a written policy to specify where such stops are authorized. Scheindlin appointed Peter L. Zimroth, a former chief lawyer for the City of New York, to oversee the program. Mayor Bloomberg indicated that the city will appeal the ruling. Scheindlin had denied pleas for a stay in her overthrow of the policing policy, saying that "Ordering a stay now would send precisely the wrong signal. It would essentially confirm that the past practices... were justified and based on constitutional police practices. It would also send the message that reducing the number of stops is somehow dangerous to the residents of this city."
On October 31, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit blocked the order requiring changes to the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk program and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case. On November 9, 2013, the city asked a federal appeals court to vacate Scheindlin's orders. On November 22, 2013, the federal appellate court rejected the city's motion for a stay of the judge's orders.
On July 30, 2014, Southern District Court Judge Analisa Torres denied the police unions' motions to intervene and granted the proposed modification of the District Court's August 2013 remedial decision. A week later, the City of New York filed a motion to withdraw its appeal. On August 13, 2014, the Second Circuit announced the cases will be argued on October 15, 2014. On October 31, a three-judge panel on the Second Circuit unanimously ruled against the unions and allowed the city to proceed with its overhaul of the police department.
A record 685,724 stops were made under the program in 2011; however, the number of stops made has been reduced in every year since then. A major turning point was the 2013 court case Floyd v. City of New York and a subsequent NYPD mandate that requires officers to thoroughly justify the reason for making a stop. In 2013, 191,558 stops were made.
Stop-and-frisk was an issue in the 2013 mayoral election. The race to succeed Bloomberg was won by Democratic Party candidate Bill de Blasio, who had pledged to reform the stop-and-frisk program, called for new leadership at the NYPD, an inspector general, and a strong racial profiling bill.
The number of stops continued to decrease over the next two years. In August 2014, Newsweek reported while stop-and-frisk numbers were down, they still happen disproportionately in New York City's African-American and Latino neighborhoods. In 2015, only 22,929 stops were made.
The politics of stop-and-frisk
Opponents of the program have complained that it is racist and failed to reduce robbery, burglary, or other crime.
The NYC Bar Association casts doubt on whether police were applying the "reasonable suspicion" rule when making stops: "The sheer volume of stops that result in no determination of wrongdoing raise the question of whether police officers are consistently adhering to the constitutional requirement for reasonable suspicion for stops and frisks."
In a January 2018 op-ed in the National Review, conservative writer Kyle Smith said that the steep decline in New York City's crime rate since the reduction in the use of stop-and-frisk had shown him that he was wrong about stop-and-frisk; Smith had earlier argued that reducing stop-and-frisk would increase the crime rate.
Paul J. Browne, an NYPD spokesman, defended the practice, saying "stops save lives, especially in communities disproportionately affected by crime, and especially among young men of color who last year represented 90 percent of murder victims and 96 percent of shooting victims in New York City."
Then-mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the aspect of stopping young black and Hispanic men at rates that "do not reflect the city’s overall census numbers", saying that "that the proportion of stops generally reflects our crime numbers does not mean, as the judge wrongly concluded, that the police are engaged in racial profiling; it means they are stopping people in those communities who fit descriptions of suspects or are engaged in suspicious activity."
Heather MacDonald denied that blacks are being stopped too often and claimed the opposite: "The actual crime rates reveal that blacks are being significantly understopped, compared with their representation in the city’s criminal population." NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly wrote, "the statistics reinforce what crime numbers have shown for decades: that blacks in this city were disproportionately the victims of violent crime, followed by Hispanics. Their assailants were disproportionally black and Hispanic too."
Advocates for a small-scale program
Bratton and Kelling both argue that stop-and-frisk is a useful tool that must be used in moderation. In a joint article in late 2014, they wrote that a Terry stop is "one of the key means to detect and prevent crimes in progress" and "an important tool in street policing", while also supporting efforts to reduce its use. Bratton agreed it was causing tension with ethnic communities and that it was less needed in an era of lower crime.
A 2012 study finds few effects of stop-and-frisk on robbery and burglary rates in New York between 2003 and 2010. According to the Washington Post fact-checker, the claim that stop-and-frisk contributed to a decline in the crime rate is unsubstantiated.
A 2016 study found no evidence that stop-and-frisk was effective. One of the authors of that study, Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia University, said that "you can achieve really very positive crime control, reductions in crime, if you do stops using those probable-cause standards. If you just leave it up to the officers, based on their hunches, then they have almost no effect on crime." Fagan "found stops based on probable cause standards of criminal behavior were associated with a 5–9 percent decline in NYC crime in census block groups."
Another 2016 study found that stop-and-frisk lowered crime, and that the size of the effect was "significant yet modest". The authors also noted that "the level of SQFs needed to produce meaningful crime reductions are costly in terms of police time and are potentially harmful to police legitimacy." A 2017 study also reported that stop-and-frisk was associated with modest crime reductions, and cautioned against drawing strong causal conclusions.
A 2017 study in the Journal of Politics found that the introduction of a mandate in 2013 that officers provide thorough justifications for stopping suspects led to far fewer stops, far fewer detainments of innocent people and increased the ratio of stops that ultimately produced evidence of the crime that the police stopped the suspect for.
One study, controlling for relevant factors, finds "that properties exposed to more intense Stop & Frisk activity sold for significantly lower price."
- Carding (police policy), a Canadian equivalent
- Civilian Complaint Review Board
- Consent search
- Crime in New York City
- Powers of the police in England and Wales § Search without arrest
- Proactive policing
- Reasonable suspicion
- Sus law, England and Wales
- Terry stop
- Terry v. Ohio
- New York City Cabaret Law
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Later, he said of the frisk policy, 'to borrow a phrase from President Clinton, I believe the practice needs to be mended, not ended' — a reference to a phrase that Mr. Clinton used in a very different context, in a 1995 speech defending affirmative action programs.
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