Stop and Frisk the Statistics

BY: Annmarie Stepancic

Between 2010 and 2012, the NYPDreported 1,624,419 stops in New York City. Of those stops, slightly over 6%, or 101,688 stops, resulted in an arrest. Another 6% resulted in a summons. So – what do these statistics mean? Well, on the one hand, these statistics seem to suggest an effort to reduce the crime rate, particularly in high crime areas. This is the interpretation we hear and read about in the news as we go about our day-to-day routines. On the other hand, these statistics suggest that the stop and frisk policy is ineffective. According to the NYPD data, stops do not yield any significant results approximately 88% of the time. We rarely, if ever, study this interpretation of the statistics. I would like to suggest that it is this interpretation – the 88% view – on which we as a society should focus our attention.

A few disclosures before I continue. I am in no way suggesting that the NYPD is wrong 88% of the time or that the entire stop and frisk policy should be eradicated. It is important to understand that not every stop and frisk will result in an arrest or summons, and I am not trying to suggest that it should. Moreover, in a post-9/11 world, it is imperative for our police officers – the men and women who vow to serve and protect us each day – to have the ability to stop and frisk any individual the officers reasonably suspect of criminal activity. However, I think and hope we can do better than futile stops 88% of the time.

I think the biggest reason stops are unsuccessful 88% of the time is because there is no clear standard for conducting a stop and frisk. In Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court established reasonable suspicion as the standard for a stop and frisk. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). According to the reasonable suspicion standard, a police officer may stop an individual that the police officer reasonably suspects has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. After an individual is stopped, the police officer may frisk the individual for police safety. But what exactly constitutes reasonable suspicion? The answer: your guess is as good as mine.

While recognizing the right against an unreasonable stop and frisk, the Warren Court failed to define the reasonable suspicion required, and subsequent congresses and legislatures have not done the job. To date, scholars have helped by defining reasonable suspicion to include, at a minimum, more than an individual’s hunch and to require specific facts that led the officer to reasonably believe that the individual has engaged will engage, or is engaging in criminal activity. These definitions, while helpful, still fall short in defining what exactly constitutes reasonable suspicion either for the courts or the police officer on the street. I understand that we live in a world of uncertainty, but that does not mean that we are to conduct our policing policies with the same uncertainty. The stakes – constitutional rights – are simply too high.

The constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of Americans are violated on an unprecedented scale because of illegal stops and frisks. A report published by the Center for Constitutional Rights in December 2012 found that

based on the information recorded on NYPD stop-and-frisk forms by police officers themselves, more than 95,000 stops lacked reasonable articulable suspicion and therefore violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Unconstitutional stops and frisks not only violate the constitutional rights of our fellow Americans, but also undercut the legitimacy of police officers. Illegal stops and frisks strain and, in many instances, destroy the very police-community relationships that could assist in the capture of the bad guys.