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by Peter Moskos

February 12, 2009

Stop and Frisk

Officially, the NYPD stopped and frisked 531,000 people last year. That’s a lot. They resulted in 31,665 arrests and 34,081 summonses.

Because of the 4th Amendment, you need “probable cause” for a search or arrest. A search happens once you go inside pockets or look for anything accept weapons (drugs do come to mind).

Because of a Terry v. Ohio, you need “reasonable suspicion” to stop and/or frisk a suspect. Afrisk is a pat down of the outer closing for weapons in the interest of officer safety. Sounds benign, but a frisk is aggressive, hands on, and personal. Ask anybody who has been frisked. It's not fun. (I should mention it's not fun to frisk, either. But similar to being hit by a car or hitting someone while driving a car, I'd prefer to be the "frisker" rather than the "friskee.")

Now half a million frisks a year is a lot. In NYC it’s part of a strategy to disarm criminals. There’s debate as to its effectiveness, but personally I think it's likely that aggressive stop and frisks did and do play some role in reducing crime in NYC.

But that's easy for me to say. It’s not me they’re frisking. I’m white, professional, getting to middle age, and know how to talk to police. Though I have been stopped twice by the NYPD, both times while on my bike.

I ask my undergrad students how many have been frisked. About half the hands go up. Most have darker skin (though there are white hands, too).

Maybe the first time you’re frisked and innocent you say, “Fine. OK. I want a safer city, too.” But the fifth time your frisked on your way to work or school? I don’t know about you, but I’d be pissed off.

So what level of frisking is acceptable? If there were 500,000 frisks and 500,000 illegal guns found, I don’t think anybody would have a real problem with frisks.

If there were 500,000 frisks and no guns were found (though it could be argued that frisks still served some deterrent value), nobody would argue it was a good policy.

So what “hit rate” justifies the frisks? 50%? 10%? 5%? I don't have the answer.

Also, consider these:

1) Most police tell me that the vast majority of frisks in NYC are officially counted (that certainly was not the case for me in Baltimore). But still, there is certainly some undercount.

2) If officers make an arrest, many don’t fill out the stop and frisk form. In other words, for some, the form is only filled out when nothing is found. So the hit rate may be somewhat higher that official stats indicate.

3) To argue, based on the stats, that 88% of those frisked did nothing wrong is absurd. If there’s a corner of active drug dealers and you stop and frisk eight people. You find a gun! Well the stats, seven out of eight (88%) were innocent and doing nothing wrong. Bullshit. In this case, all eight of those frisks were justified. Even if no gone was found (this time)!

4) On the other hand, if you're frisking walking to work with a small bag of weed, that counts as a hit but I'd say isn't justified. You frisk for weapons, not drugs. And in New York State you can't use plain feel from a frisk to prosecute for drugs. but many NYPD don't know this.

5) Does a 21-year-old white rookie cop out of Long Island have any knowledge regarding the nuances in street behavior and dress that distinguish between hip street-look and criminal thug?

6) Is it fair to disproportionately discover marijuana on urban minorities (found during a frisk) when the equivalent risk of discover for suburban whites is virtually zero?

So let's say frisks do lower crime. Let's say they also pisses off a lot of the non-criminal public. Is it worth it?


Anonymous said...

You mentioned that you knew how to talk to police. Aside from being polite what did you mean by that?

PCM said...

Hmmm. Good question. I'd say it's mostly just being polite. Maybe 90% being polite. The other 10% is a probably a little bit more casual than you might expect. Respectful but relaxed. And there's also a bit of empathy and knowing what police want and what they really care about.

Anonymous said...

Stop and frisk is an excuse to harrass although it maybe a good tacktic for officers. There isn't a good enough line to distinguish harrassment from the tacktics they use to discourage people from carrying wepons its a violation of the constituition. Pat frisk and serch to officers is the same thing in the process of a pat frisk they always seem to going into pockets that's a serch not a frisk

Anonymous said...

Some of your remarks are naive and uninformed. The Terry case sets a standard but it doesn't mean police have to follow it or if they don't follow it they will be called to account for their own crimes. My son did a stupid thing -- walking with his visiting cousin in our neighborhood (gated community) and was stopped by a patrol car at 3 AM two blocks from our house. There is no curfew where we are and he was not committing any crime simply by walking outside late. They wound up frisking him three times before they found weed on him behind his belt. The first two times should have been plenty to establish that he wasn't carrying any weapons, but the cop was on a fishing expedition. He should have been disciplined, if not arrested himself for violating my son's 4th amendment rights in such a callous fashion. But as we all know, the police are a law onto themselves as they know they will not be subject to disciplinary action or criminal indctment for violating citizens' constitutional rights. I was really tempted to hire a lawyer to file a motion to supress, but my son just wanted to get this over with. Whiel our local police obviously don't care, I will never have the same attitude toward them that I once did. To add insult to injury, our family was brought before a police officer who told my wife and me that we were bad parents, and who perjured herself when she wrote up a protocol of our meeting. So in the U.S., the police are the arresters as well as the judge and jury. I call that a police state. How about you?