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What Is a Stop and Frisk, and Why It's So Goddamn Dangerous

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 22, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 22, 2016 |

Asked in a town hall-style forum hosted by Sean Hannity what Donald Trump would do to help curb gun violence and other criminal activities, Trump suggested that he would employ the stop-and-frisk more frequently.

“One of the things I’d do … is I would do stop-and-frisk. I think you have to. We did it in New York, it worked incredibly well and you have to be proactive and, you know, you really help people sort of change their mind automatically.”

Trump, who is “courting” (wink wink) black voters, later clarified the statement to say that he only meant that Chicago — where gun violence has skyrocketed this year — should employ the stop-and-frisk (it was ruled unconstitutional in New York state in 2013).

But what exactly is the stop-and-frisk?

Between law school and Pajiba, I was the managing editor for a small legal publishing company. I was responsible for writing monthly informational newsletters for police officers. Basically, I would go through the case law and translate it into plainspeak for cops so that they better knew how to do their jobs. At one point, I even started a monthly newsletter devoted exclusively to pat down searches — or stop-and-frisks — because it had become such a problematic issue. I read hundreds of appellate cases, all trying to determine where the line is for a stop-and-frisk.

Basically, a stop-and-frisk allows a police officer to approach someone on the street (or in their car), ask for their name, and pat them down. In 1968, in Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that this was permissible under the Fourth Amendment as long as a police officer had “reasonable suspicion” that the person was up to no good.

“Reasonable suspicion,” however, is a vague and broad term. While the Supreme Court specifically said that reasonable suspicion could not be based on a “hunch” that someone was up to no good, reasonable suspicion has nevertheless evolved into something akin to a “hunch.”

For instance, if an officer approached an individual and asked for his name, and he refused to give it, that can create reasonable suspicion, even though an individual is not otherwise required to give his name unless there is reasonable suspicion. If an officer spots an individual across a parking lot, and that person turns and walks away, that can create reasonable suspicion. Basically, the nervousness that people routinely exhibit around police officers creates “reasonable suspicion,” allowing an officer to do a pat-down search. Given the level of police violence among African Americans, black people have even more reason to be nervous, which itself creates reasonable suspicion. It’s self-fulfilling.

Before New York courts ruled that routine stop-and-frisks were unconstitutional, New York City encouraged its officers to stop and frisk anyone that looked suspicious. You can probably guess what created the most suspicion for police officers: Skin color.

In 2002, there were around 82,000 pat downs in NYC. Before it was ruled unconstitutional, there were around 550,000 stop and frisks in New York City a year. How many of those people do you think were white? And how many were black or Latino?

For a decade, only ten percent of the pat downs conducted were on white people. 10 percent. Meanwhile, around 55 percent were of black people, and around 33-35 percent were of Latinos. Clearly, what created “reasonable suspicion” for police officers was the color of a person’s skin.

Here’s the other thing: 90 percent of the people who were stopped and frisked were innocent, which means that police officers in NYC had a really shitty radar for reasonable suspicion. It’s almost as if being black or Latino — without any other factors — created reasonable suspicion in and of itself.

But did it work, as Donald Trump suggests?


Yes, the crime rate dropped in NYC during the time the policy was implemented, but the crime rate dropped precipitously nationwide, and in other large cities where pat-down policies were not implemented, crime dropped even more. The drop in crime had nothing to do with pat downs.

But here is what pat-down searches did for NYC: It sewed distrust between a disproportionate number of black and Latino people and the police. And why wouldn’t it? If a police officer approached me, asked me my name, and patted me down for no reason, I’d feel offended. If they did it every day, I’d stop trusting the cops all together, because the cops aren’t trying to protect me. They think I’m the fucking bad guy. It’s like going through airport security every time you leave your goddamn house.

Now, imagine rolling that policy out nationwide in an environment that’s already toxic. We have a serious problem now. Imagine what it would look like if cops approached black people and patted them down in every city in every state in the entire country.

That’s what Donald Trump wants.

Stats via NYCLU

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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