Stop-and-Frisk: Unsurprising Answers to ‘Hard Questions’ & What We Can Do

This is not another article about whether or not Kelly should have been allowed to speak at Brown.  Still with me? Cool.

Protestors Enraged By NYPD Surveillance of Muslim Communities via Hip Hop Wired

 As students from both sides of that debate have made abundantly clear, there is a whole lot that is wrong with the Stop & Frisk policy in New York.  While my privileged perspective precludes me from fully grasping the entirety of the human toll of such policies, here is why, exactly, Ray Kelly’s policy gets it wrong on the letter of the law, and an invitation to take part in a project happening right now to assist those who have been subject to police misconduct and harassment stemming from similar practices in the Providence area.

Before we get started, let’s be clear that there was an unparalleled drop in crime in New York City in comparison to other major US cities since the introduction of Stop & Frisk. This is the case even after controlling for other factors, according to Franklin Zimring’s account in The Great American Crime Decline and in Politifact’s evaluation of this phenomenon, most notably in a reduction of homicides from about 2000 per year in the early 90’s to a 40-year record low 414 in 2012.  Proponents of the Stop & Frisk program would have us stop at these measurements in an evaluation of the policy, but these facts are baseless if the law that allegedly contributed to those results is without legitimate legal standing to begin with.

Under Terry v. Ohio, the precedent by which the Stop & Frisk program exists, officers can pat down suspects for weapons without a warrant provided they are “able to point to specific and articulable facts” to justify a stop (referred to as ‘reasonable suspicion’).   Using established justification for these Terry stops as a guide in Floyd v. New York, Judge Scheindlin picks apart the notion that ‘reasonable suspicion’ is actually serving as the standard for stops. What we’ve seen in New York instead of ‘reasonable suspicion’ is individual officer hunches and ‘feelings’, which are exactly what Terry stops are not supposed to accommodate.

According to stop report forms used by NYPD officers, most stops are justified on the basis of either ‘furtive movements’ or ‘high crime area.’ Floyd v. New York demonstrates that there is no clear definition for what ‘furtive movements’ actually means (some NYPD officers have described it as ‘being fidgety’ and ‘walking in a certain way’) and that ‘high crime area’ serves as a proxy for ‘community of color.’  Surprising no one, these flimsy definitions of ‘reasonable suspicion’ aren’t very good indicators of criminal behavior. To make matters worse, a full 15% of stop reports did not even meet the standard of reasonable suspicion by which ‘furtive movements’ and ‘high crime area’ were supposedly justifiable reasons for stops.

Ray Kelly justifies disproportionately targeting people of color by claiming that they fit descriptions of criminal suspects more often.  However, officers on the ground only check ‘fits description of criminal suspect’ 13% of the time on their stop reports, meaning that 87% of the time, Ray Kelly’s entire basis for the existence of the program simply isn’t reflective of why people of color are actually being stopped.  Even when researchers control for crime rates in respective neighborhoods, they still find that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately searched.  When officers took action following a stop, “blacks were 30% more likely to be arrested (as opposed to receiving a summons) than whites for the same suspected crime,” and were 40% more likely to have force used against them in the process of an arrest. Once again, we find that this policy of searching what officers in the NYPD have called the ‘right people’ (read: people of color) is not a good indicator of criminal behavior: stops of white people were about 40% more likely to result in seized weapons or contraband.

In New York and in Providence (where racial profiling and unconstitutional stops occur in a much less publicized environment), it’s easy for people unaffected by the policy to pin the blame on ‘a few problem officers’ or shrug it off as ‘some racism in the police department’ as if to say there’s nothing we can do about it.  Some will even concede that we must seek out and prosecute these problem officers, a process that has proven ineffective time and again in Providence. Civilian complaints that make it to hearings yield only a 4.9% rate of ‘guilty’ findings, after which guilty officers usually experience little more punishment than a ‘retraining’ or two days suspension without pay.  Some officers avoid the process entirely by pinning disorderly conduct charges on anyone who dares to complain, dropping the charges in return for a suspect’s written agreement not to submit a complaint.  Officers from New York to Providence can only do this if terms like ‘reasonable suspicion’ are rendered so meaningless that they can be redefined day to day in whatever way is convenient.

Tuesday’s events are a testament to the fact that students from all ends of the political spectrum recognize unlawful, discriminatory policy when they see it and are willing to speak out against its effects.  A common refrain from protestors was a call for continued action, and that this was not just a one-day affair.  To those who are looking for a specific action to take, I invite you to join the Providence Police Misconduct Project sponsored by the Brown American Civil Liberties Union.  This project was designed this summer by Brown students in cooperation with the Rhode Island Public Defender and other community groups.   The project aims to help victims of police misconduct get fair and effective hearings that hold bad cops accountable by conducting interviews with individuals who have been abused by Providence police, to educate the Providence community on the nature of police misconduct in what we hope will become an annual report, and to use findings from the report to lobby the Providence police to improve its practices. By holding police accountable in Providence, we move one step closer to ending racial profiling and other forms of law enforcement abuse. If you’re looking to take action, this is one of the many ways you can get involved to end exploitative policing today — regardless of whether or not you think Ray Kelly should’ve been allowed to speak.

 By Adam Kemerer, Contributor

Adam Kemerer invites anyone interested in helping combat police misconduct and racial profiling in Providence to contact him through email at

All Images via Google Images

  1. From “Even when researchers control for crime rates in respective neighborhoods, they still find that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately searched. When officers took action following a stop, “blacks were 30% more likely to be arrested (as opposed to receiving a summons) than whites for the same suspected crime,” and were 40% more likely to have force used against them in the process of an arrest. ” Are those numbers from before or after controlling by neighbor hood and where is this research reported?

    1. The research is from the Floyd v. New York opinion:

      From page 12: ” (1) The NYPD carries out more stops where there are more black and Hispanic residents, even when other relevant variables are held constant. The racial composition of a precinct or census tract predicts the stop rate above and beyond the crime rate. (2) Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to be stopped within precincts and census tracts, even after controlling for other relevant variables. This is so even in areas with low crime rates, racially heterogenous populations, or predominately white populations. (3) For the period 2004 through 2009, when any law enforcement action was taken following a stop, blacks were 30% more likely to be arrested (as opposed to receiving a summons) than whites, for the same suspected crime. (4) For the period 2004 through 2009, after controlling for suspected crime and precinct characteristics, blacks who were stopped were about 14% more likely — and Hispanics 9% more likely — than whites to be subjected to the use of force”

      The 40% figure compares total force used in all stops. From page 10: “In 23% of the stops of blacks, and 24% of the stops of Hispanics, the officer recorded using force. The number for whites was 17%”

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