Stop and Frisk Not Making Cities Safer

When people think of the word ‘freedom,’ they might often think of things like free speech, voting, or equality. What about the freedom to simply go about your day? What if, out of the blue, you were stopped, patted down, and questioned? We often take for granted the simple lack of invasion of government forces on our independent lives, but victims of unwarranted stop-and-frisk know all too well the value of this freedom.

Stop-and-frisk has been touted as an effective tactic in law enforcement, but a study recent proved that this may not be true. David Greenberg, professor of Sociology at New York University, published a study recently providing the most comprehensive analysis to date on the correlation between this aggressive police method and crime rates. As noted in The Atlantic's coverage of the study, Greenberg found “no evidence that misdemeanor arrests reduced levels of homicide, robbery, or aggravated assaults”.

When crime has been at alarming highs, cities have searched for aggressive solutions and commonly turned to increased policing. When New York City saw a decline in homicide rates at the same time that the NYPD began their stop-and-frisk policy, the assumption was that stop-and-frisk was helping to prevent crime. When homicides rose in Chicago, residents looked for a similar solution. The assumption however, that stop-and-frisk is more effective than it is invasive, is now clearly questionable.

The foundational principal behind stop-and-frisk seems sound—that is, if a police officer has reasonable suspicion to believe that a suspect has a weapon, he ought to be able to frisk the suspect to determine whether he is dangerous. The practice has become so pervasive in NYC however as to lead to high numbers of unnecessary and unwarranted stops. According to 2011 data in fact, only 12% of the NYPD’s 686,000 stops resulted in an arrest or summons.

Such ‘proactive’ methods necessarily create issues of lost freedom for innocent citizens. What's worse: racial profiling has followed. Stop-and-frisk became an integral method for the NYPD in the 1990’s and related racial profiling became evident not long after. As reported in the Atlantic’s recent extensive piece on stop-and-frisk, “During a 15-month period spanning 1998 and part of 1999, police in the city had made at least 175,000 stops. Blacks (26 percent of the city’s population) accounted for 51 percent of the total; Hispanics (24 percent of the population) accounted for 33 percent; and whites (43 percent of the population) accounted for only 13 percent”.

Last summer, a U.S. District Court judge found in a civil trial that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional. She argued in her ruling that the policy “was discriminatory, and showed little regard for the requirement that stops be based on rational grounds”. This ruling could help bring about changes in these practices in other cities, and more importantly, could impact the direction of policing and crime prevention methods in general. It will certainly be interesting to see how real progress is achieved; this determination provides hope that it will not be at the expense of liberty.

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