A few days ago, I was reading a short opinion piece by the Right-leaning Heritage Foundation entitled "Is Stop-and-Frisk Worth It?" In the article, the author justified the practice by saying that the practice of stop-and-frisk is useful and is not inherently bigoted. The article is concluded with ways to make the practice less oppressive. The history of stop-and-frisk goes back to 1968 when the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that stop-and-frisk practices are constitutional. In 1971, New York passed Criminal Procedure §140.50, which allowed for stop-and-frisk practices. Although the practice has been legal for a few decades, the NYPD started implementing it en masse in the early 2000s. Ever since, this issue has been contentious, and given the issues with civil liberties in the stop-and-frisk practice, I have to wonder whether we should continue giving police officers the ability to stop and frisk pedestrians for weapons or contraband if the officer has "reasonable cause."
Does stop-and-frisk work?
Although I will address issues of civil liberties later, the first question I have to wonder is whether the practice of stop-and-frisk decreases crime. The study that gets closest to showing that is the study of Rosenfeld and Fornango (2011). Even they found "very few significant effects (p. 2)," and that was without considering that a longer time lag between the rate of stops and the crime rate would nullify the effects. The New York State Office of the Attorney General (OAG) published an interesting report back in 2013. For one, the arrest rate with stop-and-frisk is really low (OAG, Appendix G).
The number of stops does not translate into fewer felonies. Stop-and-frisk is not proven to lower the crime rate, whereas such factors as increased number of police officers, an increased prison population, the receding crack epidemic, and the legalization of abortion better help explain the decrease in crime (Levitt, 2004). Even possibilities such a hot spot policing (Braga, 2005) or decrease in lead paint provide more plausible explanations than stop-and-frisk. Essentially, stop-and-frisk has no real effect on the crime rates (Greenberg, 2014).
The decrease in crime that took place in the 1990s took place before the vast increase in stops during the 2000s, which would mean no causal link. As a further indication of failure, only 0.1 percent of all stops lead to weapons confiscated (OAG, p. 1), and merely 0.1 percent of all stops led to a conviction (ibid).
Is stop-and-frisk racist?
Stop-and-frisk itself is not racist unto itself because the mechanism does not target members of certain racial or ethnic background. The issue, however, is the manipulation of using stop-and-frisk as a pretext for racism, much like we saw with Arizona's immigration law a couple years back. Some think that stop-and-frisk actually protects minorities, and thus alleges that it stops crime in predominantly Latino and African-American neighborhoods. However, that does not seem to be the case. During the case of Floyd v. City of New York, Dr. Jeffrey Fagan, an expert in criminology, provided testimony that shows that even when controlled for the crime rate, there is still a racial disparity. Even the NYPD Quarterly Reports show that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately stopped and frisked. Almost half of New York consists of black and Hispanic citizens. Even so, nearly 90 percent of the stops were of black and Hispanic individuals, although black people were twice as less likely to have a weapon than a white person (Office of the Public Advocate, p. 3). I know that correlation is not causation, but still, to claim this as mere coincidence is tenuous as best.
Constitutionality and Violation of Civil Rights
Being ineffective and quite possibly racist are already troubling enough aspects of stop-and-frisk. There is also the issue of the violation of one's rights. First and foremost, there is the issue of the Fourth Amendment, which was brought up in Floyd v. City of New York. The Fourth Amendment doesn't prohibit any search or seizure, but rather it prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Going back to the data, there were 2.4 million stops conducted from 2009 to 2012 alone (OAG, p. 8). However, six percent of stops led to arrests, and only 0.1 percent led to conviction (OAG, p. 1). If reasonable suspicion was the primary reason for allowing the searches, wouldn't a low arrest rate and conviction rate undermine the justification for stop-and-frisk? Since the vast majority of stop-and-frisk encounters are that of innocent citizens, one cannot argue "reasonable search and seizure" with a straight face. And as the previous section on racism shows, there are also issues with violating the Fourteenth Amendment.
This "tough on crime" policy harkens back to the 1970s when New York City had astronomically high rates of crime. Maintaining such a mentality while holding onto an ineffective policy does not do any favors for the citizens of New York City. Stop-and-frisk also erodes trust in the police (see Vera Institute of Justice study here) and increases labor costs of law enforcement who waste time on such inefficiencies. If we're going to talk about reducing crime, let's do away with the War on Drugs so that police resources can be allocated to fighting real crime. We should also discuss policy alternatives to fighting crime, but let's discuss options that actually work and don't erode our constitutional rights in the process.