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Stop-and-frisk: the Worth of Using This Technique in the Police

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In the landmark Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio, the United States Supreme Court held that a person’s fourth amendment right to a protection from unreasonable searches and seizures is not violated when an officer stops him or her without a probable cause to arrest, as long as said officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has or will commit a crime (Levchak, 2017). This practice is widely known as “stop-and-frisk”.

In the State of New York, the practice of stop and frisk has long been a hotbed of controversy. Between 2004 and 2012, the NYPD made 4,628,936 stops and carried out 2,400,903 frisks (Ferrandino, 2015). The body of research that has been conducted on the practice has largely focused on its presumed racial biases: whether people of color are stopped more often, and whether that statistic is due to a correlation between crime and race or race and bias. In 2013, Bill De Blasio ran his first campaign for Mayor of New York on a platform that encouraged a dramatic reduction in stop-and-frisks, and his subsequent win illustrated the support that the people of New York had for an end to the practice (Ridgeway, 2017). The results were not entirely surprising: a 2014 Gallup Poll found that 68% of blacks and 25% of whites believed that African-Americans are treated unfairly by the police (2014). However, the argument around stop and frisk presents an interesting dilemma: when is the trade-off between individual rights and overall safety worth it? According to the intersectional data presented by criminologists, anthropologists and sociologists, this trade-off is overtly skewed to disproportionately harm one sector of the population while not providing a substantial increase in safety for the overall community, thus deeming the trade-off definitively not worth the risk.

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To better conceptualize the argument surrounding stop-and-frisk, it is first important to understand the structure of policing in the United States. American policing is a decentralized structure in which local governments and communities make key decisions as to how to effectively police their population (Ridgeway, 2017). Differences in population, racial and cultural make-up, and political ideology between states, cities, and even precincts play an important role in how the police and policing practices are received and regulated. For the purposes of this paper, the state of focus will be New York, and the data presented will be pulled from criminology studies that have used vetted statistical models to conduct field studies that aimed to understand the delicate and often intricate relationship between racial profiling and the stop-and-frisk program.

In his 2014 research, criminologist and data statistician Greg Ridgeway concluded that the stop-and-frisk program is an essential part of policing, but requires rigorous oversight and restraint. In his study, he found that the number of Black and Hispanic pedestrians targeted for the stop-and-frisk program in Staten Island in comparison to their White counterparts was statistically significant enough to suggest the existence of racial profiling within the NYPD (Ridgeway, 2017). Ferrandino (2015) conducted a study that included an investigation into complaints filed against NYPD officers after stop-and-frisk incidents, and similarly found that racial statistics are not only important in the selection of who to stop and frisk, but also in the context of subsequent use of force by officers during the stop. In his study, Ferrandino compares the instances of alleged use of force in routine stop-and-frisks in New York and concludes that the differences in complaints between racial groups was statistically significant enough to justify the hypothesis that race played a factor in both the initial stop and subsequent police behavior afterwards.

In a 2017 study, sociologist and criminologist Philip Levchak points out that the research on post-stop outcomes and consequences are scarce. Post-stop outcomes include being frisked, being arrested, and use of force. In his research, Levchak finds that the percentage of non-white persons who are frisked and searched after a stop is clearly larger than that of white persons. He also concludes that there exists a disparity in regards to use of force post-stop, with 22.8% of blacks and 26% of Latinos experiencing use of force from an officer in comparison to 16% for whites. However, he also concludes that the magnitude of difference for being issued a summons or being arrested is minimal across racial groups. Most importantly, Levchak also finds that the result of the stop-and-frisks for all racial groups are often not meaningful or productive (2017). On that note, Levchak states that across racial groups, non-white targets are the least productive stops, meaning the officer often does not find any activity that justifies the stop (2017).

Levchak’s precinct-specific study also revealed an interesting sociological aspect to stop-and-frisks. According to his research, not only were African-Americans more likely to be targets of stop-and-frisk practices, but the probability of them being subjected to it increased as the population of African-Americans within a given precinct increased (Levchak, 2017). Levchak argues that the consensus amongst racial threat scholars is as follows: prejudice against minority communities increases as the size of said minority communities increases. According to this theory, the racial identity of the white population in the United States is distinctly linked with a perceived idea of cultural dominance. In other words, as non-white populations increase within a precinct–and subsequently in a city, state, or country– the more the dominant white population feels threatened. Applied to the overall culture of policing, this theory suggests that the probability and risk of non-white persons to be targets of overt policing and racial profiling increases as their population within a precinct increases (Levchak, 2017)

Anthropologist Richard Curtis also provides additional data to prove the existence of racial disparity in stop-and-frisk incidents, pointing out that while New York City had a white population of 30% at the time of the study, only 9% of overall stop-and-frisks involved white people (Curtis, 2012). Even more damning, a 2007 NYPD statistical report revealed that in more than a half-million stops carried out in 2006, 90% involved people of color, even though when frisked, white pedestrians were 70% more likely to have been armed (Ridgeway, 2007).

The particular study mentioned above was carried out by Ridgeway under the authority of RAND, a non-profit research organization that focuses on providing objective analysis to increase effectiveness in public policy and safety measures (Ridgeway, 2014). As a response to the racial-profiling allegations leveled at the officers, the NYPD turned to RAND to find solutions in order to better police the city. In many ways, Ridgeway’s conclusions in this study mirror that of his 2017 study: that effective use of stop-and-frisk is a useful tool in policing, but requires oversight, training, and restraint. However, looking at the data he presents, it is difficult to understand where the trade-off between public safety and the violation of individual rights is presumed to be acceptable. According to the study, Ridgeway is able to identify multiple markers for discrimination in the NYPD’s use of stop-and frisk: black pedestrians, for instance, were stopped at rates that are significantly greater than their representative share in their residential census, while Hispanic pedestrians were often stopped at greater rates than their share of representation among arrestees overall. Ridgeway further states that the significant difference between the frisk rates of white and non-white pedestrians can be explained through “legitimate” factors including time and place (Ridgeway, 2017). However, this argument is negated by the previously stated statistic that while New York City is 30% white, the majority of stop-and-frisks were aimed at non-white people.

Recall that the United States employs a decentralized system of policing. This is due partly to the Founders’ inherent distrust of centralized government, but can also further be justified by taking into account the large differences in population distribution and make-up across the country. While it is true that rates of stop-and-frisk practices may be affected by factors such as time and place, it would be unreasonable to assume every instance of stop-and-frisk is a product of these factors. According to the data provided by criminologists, anthropologists, and sociologists, there is a heavy correlation between racial makeup and the consistency with which a stop-and-frisk is conducted within a populace. Further, the decentralized nature with which policing is regulated within the United States makes it substantially more difficult to properly address and rectify the malignant problem of racial-profiling in stop-and-frisk practices. Thus, it is safe to conclude that while effective stop-and-frisk programs may be a useful tool to police departments, it is most often the fact that in application, stop-and-frisk programs are inclined to be racially discriminatory.

There is a concept within the legal community that there exists a trade-off between individual liberties and overall community safety in any functioning society. In other words, in order for a society to function, some individual liberties must be given up. The arguments for stop-and-frisk often revolve around this concept. Safety is essential in a society, therefore policing is necessary in a society. Subsequently, it is reasonable to provide the means with which the institutions a society has vested the responsibility of assuring safety (in this case, the police) can effectively do so. To proponents of stop-and-frisk, it is a practice that is rooted in providing a means with which to provide crime reduction. Like Ridgeway, many proponents believe that an end to stop-and-frisk is not a reasonable solution to the unintended racial-profiling problems that have arisen. Instead, it is believed that a rigorous system of oversight and correction is enough to address these issues. However, when considering the sociological argument, it is difficult to assert that it is possible to carry out a practice such as stop-and-frisk without rampant racial-profiling occuring, even if it is not done with malicious intent. Additionally, both sides of the argument have come to an agreement on one thing: that the data does not show that the practice of stop-and-frisk has contributed significant reduction in crime rates, nor has it aided in identifying any subset of the population that is more predisposed to crime than another. Further, when considering the decentralized manner with which police departments are organized in the United States, it becomes clear that a solution to the consequences of stop-and-frisk cannot and will not be addressed in a sweeping manner. The scientific data thus supports the argument that the trade off between robbing certain portions of the American populace of their individual rights and ensuring overall community safety through stop-and-frisk is unreasonable and ineffective, and thus, the practice should not continue to be a standard part of American policing. 

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