Commentary: The Turning Tide Against Stop-and-Frisk

New Yorkers are protesting it, but will the courts rule in favor of this controversial police practice?

Posted: 03/20/2013 02:17 PM EDT
Commentary: The Turning Tide Against Stop and Frisk

The tide seems to be turning when it comes to stop-and-frisk.

At the same time a United States Court in Manhattan is determining the constitutionality of the controversial New York City police practice, there is growing evidence that New Yorkers of all stripes are growing weary of it.

Over the last couple years, there have been marches protesting stop-and-frisk. A growing number of elected officials and activists have spoken out against the practice with increasing vehemence. And even some courts have ruled against it.

But the Manhattan court case is a hugely important development. It is a class-action suit in which 11 Black men and a Hispanic woman will testify about the experiences of being stopped repeatedly by the New York City Police Department’s officers. Indeed, Floyd v. City of New York is designed to represent “hundreds of thousands” of New Yorkers who have been stopped and searched by police.

It is notable because, if the plaintiffs are successful, it would reject a hallmark of the policing strategy of the administration of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has been a staunch defender of the practice. The mayor and his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, insist that stopping hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino men – the overwhelming population of those being detained – is precisely what the city needs to best fight crime and save lives.

To most of the rest of the city, stop-and-frisk remains a huge blemish on the city, a practice that is indistinguishable from vigorous racial profiling. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are stopped, searched and humiliated each year, principally because they are young and African-American or Latino.

There have been some 5 million stops by New York police since 2004. Of those, roughly 88 percent of those stopped resulted in the person walking away without an arrest or any summons for criminal activity. One of the core questions in the trial is whether that low rate of finding evidence of criminality suggests, as the plaintiffs claim, that many of the stops were baseless.

The city has reason to be worried in this case. The case is being heard by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who issued a ruling that many of the stop-and-frisk incidents in a small section of housing in the Bronx were unconstitutional.

And public opinion is clearly not on the side of Bloomberg and Kelly. A recent Quinnipiac poll indicated that just 39 percent of respondents approve of the stop-and-frisk policy, with 55 percent disapproving of it.

The poll showed that the percentage who approved dropped from 45 percent from the previous month. Not surprisingly, 76 percent of Black respondents disapproved of the practice as did 60 percent of Latino respondents. More than half of the white people who were questioned – 56 percent, in fact – approved of the practice.

It is unfortunate that the Bloomberg administration is so profoundly out of step with the rest of the city on this critically important issue. Yet there is hope. While the mayor and police commissioner appear to be far from willing to end the practice, it looks like the court may have the final say.

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(Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

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