Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Dilemma of Stop and Frisk

I have sympathy for the Stop and Frisk policy in New York City. Parts of the city have high crime rates, which were even higher decades ago and almost caused a permanent collapse of the city. What can you do when there is a concentration of criminals? Stop and Frisk is one of the possible answers, and the mayor and police chief swear by it.

There are a couple problems with the policy. The handling is often rough, is highly resented by the frequent targets (young men of color) and their families, and might be contra the word and spirit of our constitutional rights. These rights include the guarantee that we aren't subject to arbitrary search and seizure. Such an intrusion, and it is a big intrusion, is legal only when based on individualized suspicion.

Safety Vs. Rights
With that background covered, I want to move on to the big question: when (or if) to make the tradeoff between fundamental rights and safety. In many aspects of life (my life at least), safety is the prime issue. My car is much safer than models from 50 years ago because safety was a huge priority, and the government forced the car companies to add safety features. In healthcare, safety is the top priority. You don't endanger your life to save someone else. Your rights as a patient abruptly end when there is danger to other people, including to the professionals who are responsible for caring for you. We definitely manhandle the obstreperous patients.

So safety is a very worthy consideration. However, so is the right to be free from unreasonable searches. I'm so glad that I don't randomly get pulled over or stopped when I walk, forced up against a wall, have my pockets emptied and my arms, legs, and trunk felt all over. That's not the way to treat anyone whom you respect--it's a denial of human dignity.

Yet I submit to full body scan when I take an airplane, and I'd allow a frisk if that was required. Why? Because I've seen plenty of hijackings during my life. Air travel is clearly a target, and lesser measures haven't been enough to ensure safety. Also, it's an infrequent intrusion, well defined in scope and timing and broadly applied. Those limits are what make it acceptable to me.

View from the City
I'm not personally affected by NYC's Stop and Frisk policy, or by NYC's crime. I rarely visit there, and I'm old enough so I don't look like anyone's idea of a mugger. I don't have the personal stake that New Yorkers have, so I definitely wouldn't tell them what to think.

Still, I try to put myself in their shoes because that's the best way to understand the issue. On one hand, the relatively high risk of being stopped and frisked may inhibit crime. A person is less likely to carry a weapon for mugging or burglary tools when there's a chance of being stopped and frisked. I wonder if burglary and robbery rates went down a great deal at the start of this program.  I wonder if burglary and robbery would rise if the program was suspended. Why would you put people through that kind of search if it wasn't effective? That's the only reason I find body scans reasonable at airports--we know that they are effective in preventing hijackings.

Question of Efficacy
When I take a closer look at how the program works, certain aspects surprise me. Arrests for illegal gun possession have occurred in just 1.9% of the stops. That makes me wonder why the mayor thinks this program is so important in its effectiveness. The cops aren't actually taking many weapons off the streets this way, so what is the effect? Could police presence alone, without a quota of stops, be as large a deterrent to crime? I don't see why not, but I'm no expert on this.

It seems to me that the police have broad enough power to stop people when they have even mild suspicions--suspicion due to bulges in clothes that could be guns or illegal knives, someone walking too closely, or someone checking out purses, wallets, and briefcases. The police don't need to have a quota of stops besides. They don't need to stop someone with no suspicion whatsoever and subject that person to invasive search just for being outdoors in their own city. The thinkers behind the Bill of Rights were correct--you shouldn't be stopped or searched for no reason at all.

That said, I'm surprised by the amount of support for the program among residents in neighborhoods where many of the stops are conducted. It seems that they feel much safer due to these police actions. Many fear a return of higher crime rates. They want to feel safer in their neighborhoods. I can't argue with that--that's exactly how I feel when I fly or drive--I want to feel safe. I hope that can be achieved without quotas of stops and without random searches. If crime rates rise, perhaps this policy is the only deterrent that works. If that's true, we're back to the difficult question of safety versus rights, and rights may well lose for the greater good of safety.



  • Bloomberg is a racist elitist.
  • The legal view against the policy.
  • The true aim is to instill fear.
  • Gun rights advocate/libertarian says the police shouldn't take guns from those who carry in NYC. 
  • A black parent has misgivings about ending program and a surge of gun violence. 
  • Frequent fliers, but their families support the program. 
  • New Yorker article with statistical analysis of stops. 
  • Mend, not end: "If they're going to frisk, they should follow procedures." But also: "I'm black, I've been jailed for no reason. That's why I don't go outside at night."
  • More background and statistics, but see the Wall Street Journal and this article for some counter statistics: 
  • 87% of those stopped are black or hispanic. 
  • 88.5% of those stopped have no evidence of a crime on them. 
  • 78% of shooting suspects are black. 
  • Major crimes have fallen 34% in NYC, but only 14% across the country.


Dangerous said...

I enjoyed reading this post and have thought about this issue a great deal as well.

Stop and frisk is a rational short-cut around probable cause. Unfortunately for its proponents, the Constitution doesn't allow short-cuts to circumvent someone's rights.

Here's an example on point. I'm of the opinion -- widely shared around the country -- that the neighborhood in NYC with the highest crime rate and that impacts the entire country is: Wall Street. There are lots of laws on the books that are violated every day there, but there's no task force that randomly stops men or women in business suits and opens their briefcases or laptops to see if they are carrying incriminating documents!!

ModeratePoli said...

@dangerous, good luck frisking your typical Wall Street trader or exec and being able to recognize evidence of a crime. If only it was that easy, maybe they could stop many of them as being habitual criminal or congregating in a place where crime frequently occurs.

But back to what is actually feasible. I'm not sure how strong the rights are. The police can question and search on suspicion--they don't need to have witnessed any criminal activity. Why the broader allowance instead of the narrower? I don't see a constitutional reason for that.

The practical reason is that criminal naturally try to conceal their crimes, so the police need to be able to delve to some degree even when evidence is scant. I guess the Supreme Court gave them cover for that, though it seems the police often operated that way before too.

Some of the responses that I list in the Extras are requests to be polite during the searches, not to end them. That's an intriguing viewpoint, perhaps due to a realization that Stop and Frisk has definite benefits too.

Dangerous said...

Of course violating random people's protections against warrantless (and, I might add, probably cause-less) searches has some benefits. Some of them will be engaged in some crime at that time despite lack of probable cause, some are about to engage in some crime, and some might have been about to engage in a crime if not for the existence of the program and the potential to have their effort foiled.

My earlier point vis-à-vis Wall Street crimes is not a physical frisking (which I think you understood) but applying the same policing logic and profile to everyone somewhat equally. Both are either contrary to the Constitution despite their benefits, or both are equally valid. There is clearly large incentives for Wall Street traders and exec to conduct insider trading, sharing of secrets in violation of SEC code, or simply finding ways to cheat the public and others. Nobody uses a "reasonable suspicion" or, essentially, guilt by association to conduct warrantless searches of their persons, briefcases or laptops, on the street or otherwise. Their crimes frequently occur in their offices.

The problem with stop-and-frisk is that it's logic crumbles making it in both theory and practice a form of selected profiling. The main political incentive is not to stop, but for the powers that be to be seen as doing something to fight crime. They are just setting up a TSA-style portal. But when someone buys an airline ticket they consent to that search, even though the likelihood is very low.

I'm guess that stronger police presence and better passive surveillance is just as likely to deter crime -- and that applies to both drug-infested neighborhood of NYC and Wall Street.