Risks of Stop and Frisk

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The city of Chicago, Illinois is known for many things—it’s home to North America’s tallest skyscraper, a World Series team, that vicious lake effect—but recently, gun violence has topped it all. This past August was the most violent month the city has seen in two decades, with more than 400 people shot and some 78 homicides. By the end of the eighth month of 2016, the city suffered 500 homicides after 480 total in 2015. Based on that pace, Chicago could wind up with nearly 700 homicides this year alone.

Due to those horrific numbers, Chicago is the epicenter of discussions on gun violence and the state of America’s inner cities, regularly mentioned by political candidates regardless of part affiliation. Over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has used Chicago repeatedly as the stencil with which to trace his painting of African American and Latino inner city communities as “hell.”

Trump advanced this narrative during the first presidential debate on September 26, during which he described Chicago as a war zone. “You walk down the street, you get shot,” he said in response to moderator Lester Holt’s question about healing the racial divide and rising tensions in the country. It was what Trump said next, though, that was more troubling.

“Whether or not in a place like Chicago you do Stop and Frisk, which—and Mayor Giuliani is here tonight—worked very well in New York,” he said. “It brought the crime rate way down.”

Like many of the claims that Trump uses for his benefit, that’s a statement worthy of dissection. Though crime rates have decreased in New York City, Stop and Frisk can hardly be credited, according to data provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) between the years of 2003 and 2013; 86 percent of the people stopped in any given year were completely innocent (with the innocence rate rising as high as 90 percent in 2006).

To understand Stop and Frisk is to read the letter of the law while juxtaposing the systemic issues factored into that law. The practice was borne out of the 1968 Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio, which states that an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights—which prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures—could be superseded if a police officer had reasonable suspicion of a crime committed by said individual.

The conception of the practice traces itself back to English common law, which maintains officers’ authority to stop and search suspected criminals with a standard less than that of probable cause (reasonable suspicion). Following the encounter, “the reasonableness of any deletion and investigation is determined as a question of constitutional fact under the circumstances of each situation.” In other words, whether or not the stop was an unreasonable use of police power is decided on a case-by-case basis.

Conceivably, that works, and it’s fair to assume that most people would agree that if a police officer is absolutely certain about the criminality of a given person, he should do anything in his power to get that person off the street. Where Stop and Frisk breaks down is in the judgement of officers in determining criminality, specifically in a nation where people of color—especially African Americans—have been hyper-criminalized since the end of the Civil War.

The statistics in New York accentuate that racial disparity. In 2011, when a record 685,724 stops were made, 53 percent of those stopped were black and 34 percent were Latino. Even in more recent years, including 2016, that disparity is apparent—53 percent of those stopped in the first two quarters of this year were black, 30 percent Latino. A study conducted in 2012 which adjusted for “precinct variability and race specific estimates of crime participation” still found that “those of African American and Hispanic descent were stopped more frequently than whites.”

Though overall stops and innocence rates are down, the racial imbalance among them is still obvious. Michael Sisitsky, policy counsel for the NYCLU, understand the difficulty of accepting this harsh reality, but maintains that until we begin acknowledging the racial divide, the problem can’t be properly addressed.

“It’s difficult for people, particularly white folks, to understand and accept the fact that there are issues of power and privilege in our society,” he says. “It’s people not wanting to deal with the fact that our systems are built with a lot of biases carried over from a very dark part of our history.”

There are a number of encouraging signs in this regard, even aside from the enormous decrease in police stops. The NYCLU has a hand in a number of pieces of reform legislation, including the Community Safety Act, designed to create greater accountability for NYPD officers. Sisitsky also says the issues aren’t lost on officers themselves, many of whom are hesitant to speak out due to various forms of backlash from fellow officers and the department itself.

“What we’ve heard from officers who have stepped forward is that there are broad levels of support being expressed privately to them from many of their colleagues who wish they could be in a position to speak out more forcefully,” Sisitsky says. “There are a lot of barriers to officers coming forward, but that’s not to say this isn’t a concern shared by many officers in police departments.”

Given these developments, it appears that Stop and Frisk isn’t long for law enforcement—but the praise of a major party candidate, even given Trump’s unprecedented nature, is a net negative. Between the reform legislation currently on deck in New York and heightened racial awareness, real progress is on the come in terms of ridding cities of aggressive police practices, holding true the idea that admittance of a problem is the first step—but not nearly the last—in solving it.


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