Stop and Frisk and Racial Profiling in the Police

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In the early stages of United States history following the events of WW2, the use of stop and search procedures where officers would flood the streets after a reported crime to question individuals in urban, low income, and predominantly black neighborhoods became a staple method for crime fighting. These tactics originated by the LAPD became embraced by other city chiefs and began to prioritize street stops as a way to conduct surveillance on suspicious individuals. Throughout history patrol officers had always stopped and searched people they felt as being suspicious but this became an official strategy in 1964 when New York State passed the country’s first law under the name “stop and frisk’. (Elkins)

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While stop and frisk is considered as a driving force in police procedure in the United States, it must begin with meeting the minimum legal requirement of reasonable suspicion. A police officer must have some form of probable cause indicating that an individual is committing a crime or likely to commit one in order to proceed with a legal arrest. This isn’t necessarily always the case, Avdi Avdija writes “To make a simple stop, however, police officers are not required to meet the ‘probable cause’ level of justification. Since Terry v Ohio in 1968, the police need to meet the ‘reasonable suspicion’ standard, which is a lesser justification level than probable cause.” (Avdija, 2013) This not only relates to stops, as only using reasonable suspicion as a means of justification for frisk procedures is also allowed in certain scenarios. Therefore, a patrol officer can conduct an official stop and proceed to a ‘frisk’ based solely on reasonable suspicion. As stop and frisk procedures became more intentional and methodical, police presence in minority neighborhoods also began to rise.

One of the main issues of concern in the United States is the issue of mass incarceration. There is as strong correlation between stop and frisk procedures and the massive imprisonment of minorities in America especially that of African Americans. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population in which half are locked up for nonviolent crimes. (NAACP) The United States war on drugs has been a key identifier as to why such large numbers of prisoners exist as most are sentenced with drug related charges as small as possession of marijuana. Many people believe that criminalizing marijuana isn’t justifiable through moral code because a real crime should have a victim and criminal determined through due process. Harry Levine brings forth a very concerning issue in his article in which he states that “Over the last fifteen years, police departments in the United States made 10 million arrests for marijuana possession—an average of almost 700,000 arrests a year. Police arrest blacks for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites in every state and nearly every city and county.” Levine goes on to explain that most of these arrests are committed in low income neighborhoods mainly populated by people of color in which police illegally stop and search young men with no real probable cause solely hoping they find something on them. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow talks about how mainly African Americans are targeted for humiliating marijuana arrests and extremely harsh sentences on par with much more dangerous drugs such as crystal meth, heroin and cocaine. Alexander states “a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.” History has shown that the war on drugs is flawed and extreme, as Alexander points out certain scenarios where drug dealers are handed out more time than mass murderers.

The so called “War On Drugs” is costing our nation tons of money and as noted by Alexander, we are placing felons, presumably African American in a racial caste system in which they are stuck and can not move up because of the severe consequences that come along with being labeled a felon such as the inability to receive any type of government aid or land a decent job. Small drug arrests from stop and frisk procedures have been used as a major tool for mass incarceration. The message being sent out is very contradictory because the government is essentially saying that they are outlawing drugs because it can ruin your life but if they catch you with drugs they’re going to send you to jail and ruin your life.

Michelle Alexander notes that a notable difference between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is that the current system of control receives, or rather seems to receive, the support of African Americans. In society, blame is placed on the individual that is arrested, because they chose to commit crimes and in return are incarcerated. However, Alexander makes the argument that all of us are essentially criminals, and the current system exploits the fact that everyone makes a mistake at some point in their lives. An illusion of culpability is created, it isn’t that the urban poor are more likely to make mistakes, it’s that they are more likely to be targeted by the system of control. While political policies and judicial proceedings may be at fault for playing a part in the system of control, I believe law enforcement agencies have the largest part in targeting individuals to be prosecuted.

Basic court hearings focused on officer involved stops can become stressful when attempting to explain the facts of the situation. Ron Bacigal states that “the suspect often feels threatened and harassed. The police officer often suspects that a crime is about to occur, and if a frisk takes place it is because the suspect is believed to be armed and dangerous to the officer, the public, or both.” (Bacigal) At the end of the day, police officers are human like the rest of us and react to life threatening and fearful situations by ultimately trusting their own instincts. Often times when asked why they initiated a stop and frisk they will tend to say based on their judgement they felt it was the right thing to do at the time. Ron Bacigal states that officers are aware they are responsible to provide a more in depth analysis of the situation to the judge and tend to fall back on familiar language that the courts have accepted in prior cases. In attempts to avoid racial profiling officers will cite known statistics that will prove them of their innocence of racial bias. For example, an officer may cite that the location was in a known high crime area, or that the suspect made suspicious gestures with others in what’s to be known as an open drug market. Ultimately, Bacigal is trying to show us that officers have experience in the courts and know the type of language they need to use in order to please the judge in accepting a lawful stop and frisk. They know the rules of the game and know how to take advantage of it.

This is an issue that is still taking course in today’s day and age. The New York Times had published an article stating that “pressure is increasing on the New York City Police Department to reform its stop-and-frisk program under which New Yorkers, nearly all innocent of any crime, were stopped by the police close to 700,000 times last year.” (NY Times) The department responded by stating that it will be conducting reviews on the legality of all stop and frisk actions which by law require the need of reasonable suspicion. While this seems like a good step it is ultimately meaningless unless a third party investigator with no bias gets involved in the matter. A study done by the N.Y.C.L.U found that African American and Hispanic men were targeted by such procedures in extremely alarming numbers. The data showed that they reflect for only 4.7% of the city’s population, but accounted for 41.6% of stops last year. As stated by Bacigal earlier and largely proving his point, officers cited extremely vague specific language such as suspects displayed “furtive movements” as a reason for almost 50% of these stops. Stop and frisk policy has been a debate between city officials and civil liberty advocates for quite some time now. Civil liberty advocates argue that such policy violates the civil rights of those who are stopped and that the system is targeting racial minorities as opposed to criminal behavior.

Certainly, based on the given data it seems like a reasonable argument but city officials have continued to state that it is a cornerstone in maintaining law and order. The NYPD has kept an electronic database of all individuals who have been stopped by this policy. City officials have argued that such a database was necessary because detectives relied on it for investigations and to arrest suspects. (Harris, 2017) In order to prove its effectiveness, city officials provided a file containing hundreds of names from the database that had ultimately ended in arrest. This was looked upon as a key piece of evidence to support the strategy in place. Further analysis of the file by the Paterson Administration refuted the claims given by the city. They found no direct link between names from the database and claims made by the NYPD. (Harris, 2017) It later became evident that in almost every case where an arrest was made, the suspect already had an existing criminal record. With the gathering of new evidence, the argument given by the NYPD was officially put to rest. New legislation followed making it illegal to electronically store any identifying information of individuals who were stopped but not arrested. Further analysis of race and specific areas of stops discovered massive racial disparities showing the specific targeting of minorities especially those of African American or Hispanic descent. The data provided by Harris and this database ultimately suggested that majority of stops done by the NYPD were based on racial identity not breaking the law.

Throughout the course of American history we have gathered overwhelming amounts of evidence that has shown us that such contradictory and racially motivated police practices have been going on for a while. Racial profiling in police procedures are an issue we must confront with full force in order to achieve meaningful change. All the authors cited have provided credible evidence or data that showcases faults in our police system. The majority of America falls into the disillusion that their justice system is doing the right thing, when in fact it’s full of holes and every step of the process may be oppressing minorities. People do not want to see the faults in their own system and in our case many people have already seen the faults but do not attempt to do anything about it.

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