Commentary: Stop-and-Frisk Trial Exposed Some Central Flaws

New York’s mayor and police officials defended stop and frisk, but the trial revealed how unsound the program is.

Posted: 05/23/2013 12:13 PM EDT

The riveting stop-and-frisk trial is now over and, no matter what the verdict might ultimately be, the proceedings in the United States District Court in Manhattan will long be remembered for uncovering the unvarnished reality of an abhorrent system that victimizes hundreds of thousands of innocent New Yorkers.

The months-long trial has revealed to the public what has long been clear to many African-American and Latino young people: Stop and frisk is little more than a form of racial profiling that is etched in the practice of the nation’s largest police force.

That perspective was underscored by a recently released report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which indicated that there are still stark racial disparities in the New York City Police Department’s program under which hundreds of thousands of Black and brown New Yorkers are detained for doing nothing illegal.

“Despite the welcome decline in the overall number of stops, the NYPD last year still subjected hundreds of thousands of innocent people to humiliating, intimidating and unjustified stop-and-frisk encounters,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“With a 90-percent failure rate, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program remains a tremendous waste of resources, sows mistrust between police and the communities of color and routinely violates fundamental rights. The city’s next mayor must make a clean break from the Bloomberg administration’s ineffective and abusive stop-and-frisk regime.”

That failure rate was one of the major facts that came out of the trial. It was noted by Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who heard the case and is expected to make a decision in a few months, “A lot of people are being frisked or searched on suspicion of having a gun and nobody has a gun,” she said. “So the point is: the suspicion turns out to be wrong in most of the cases.”

Police officials and the administration of New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have contended that racial profiling has nothing to do with stop and frisk. By stopping so many African-American and Latino young men, they contend, they are preventing crime from getting even worse. They are merely stopping people who appear suspicious and are likely to be involved in lawlessness, they maintain.

That speaks to the central flaw of their case. Nearly 90 percent of those stopped are guilty of nothing, placing the program squarely in witch-hunt terrain.  

That laid the ground for what will undoubtedly be the takeaway line of the trial.  

Judge Scheindlin spoke of the “high error rate” that has been the dreadful hallmark of stop and frisk and added, in addressing an attorney for the city, “You reasonably suspect something and you’re wrong 90 percent of the time.”

While it will be some time before the verdict is reached, the blemishes of the stop-and-frisk program have been exposed, courtesy of the trial. Hopefully, it will lead to the total dismantling of this horrendous plank in the platform of policing in New York City. It would be the right thing to do on behalf of the millions of New Yorkers, the overwhelming majority of them Black and brown, who have been the victims of stop and frisk.

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(Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

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