What is ‘Stop and Frisk’?

A lot of talk has come up recently, in the political climate, of ‘Stop and Frisk.’ It sounds like a really good idea – in fact, you have probably seen some examples of what you think stop and frisk is on TV shows like COPS or Law & Order. But it probably isn’t what you think it is – at least, not in the political sense.

Stop and frisk has typically been done by law enforcement for decades. It was sanctioned and often called a ‘Terry’ stop in other places. Terry stops require certain elements before an officer can ‘stop and frisk.’ It was originally intended to allow a police officer to stop and reasonably search someone for a weapon if the police officer suspected the person of danger or a crime. In the last decade, the New York Police Department of New York City came under fire for the manner in which they conducted many of their ‘stop and frisks’. Several police officers brought accusations of misconduct, alleging that stop and frisk was overused and abused and unfairly targeted minority neighborhoods. Defenders of the program insisted it reduced crime, made the city safer, and ultimately saved lives.

A U.S. District Court determined that the method in which stop and frisk was implemented in New York City was unconstitutional, and ordered the police department to make changes and specify in writing, when such stops could be authorized. This case was appealed, but the mayor’s office dropped the suit in years since. Stop and frisk is still in practice in New York, but at much lower rates. However, it is still used disproportionately in minority neighborhoods in New York City. Studies have determined that stop and frisk does not have any correlation to lowered crime and increased safety in neighborhoods that are subjected to it; rather, the value of property that is in neighborhoods where stop and frisk are used frequently has declined.

Stop and frisk still has its place in policing and in crime. If a police man starts talking to you, and he can reasonably and articulately explain why he feels he might be in danger, he is allowed to stop you and check you for weapons, or what should be simply a pat down. An example of this might be a description of someone wearing similar clothing to you, in the neighborhood or area where a crime happened, and the crime was violent – such as a shooting or a robbery where a weapon was used. If your behavior is suspicious – you are sweating and out of breath, like you have been running, or perhaps you are extremely nervous, that might be enough to allow a stop and frisk under the Terry rules. As it was employed in New York City, however, police would often simply stop young, minority men in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood and pat them down without much more than that they were young, male, and the wrong color.

There was evidence from police officers that the ranking authorities pressured police officers to bring their numbers of stop and frisk up – instituting a quota that many officers felt gave way to abuse of the technique. The judge agreed, and for now, stop and frisk is implemented regularly, but less frequently, than previously. Some officers worry that this could be an end to what has been an effective technique – at least for arresting large numbers of people with not much more than a reasonable and articulable suspicion of crime.

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