An Outside View of Stop & Frisk

Regardless of what you might think of NYPD’s stop & frisk in theory or, by extension, those who fought against and defeated it in court, consider that more than a few voices of speaking out wore blue. Some considerations when controversy embroils a...

It would have been almost comical if it weren’t so concerning.  Titled “Shooting off their mouths:  Gun-carrying criminals taunting NYPD cops after stop-frisk ruling,” the New York Post article opens provocatively (as NY Post stories are wont to do – and yes, we weigh the overall credibility of the article in light of its source) :

 “Thugs with guns think they’re the ones calling the shots on the streets in the wake of the anti-NYPD stop-and-frisk ruling.

“You can’t stop me! You can’t do that no more! There are new rules!” suspect Steven Sidbury, 21, allegedly yelled at officers as they approached him in crime-riddled East New York last week.”

It goes on to tell the story of how many New York City criminals seemingly believe, in the wake of the recent ruling by US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin of the NYPD’s “stop & frisk program” to be unconstitutional, that NYPD officers have been rendered impotent to conduct street stops and pat-downs.  If true, NYPD cops in some of the toughest beats in America face major challenges to the credibility of their legitimate stops.  Taken to its potential extreme, if some holding those beliefs decide to resist what they see as an unconstitutional intrusion upon their rights (and we all know how many legal scholars who’ve studied at the University of Major Network Lawyer Shows are out there, and how they love to “educate” us in the errors of our ways) someone is liable to end up seriously hurt or dead. 

Of course, the NYPD beat cops don’t share such sentiments, having read Terry vs Ohio and all, and carry on doing what beat cops everywhere are supposed to do.  Stops are still being made, frisks conducted, bad guys arrested and the innocent allowed to go about their business.  Still, the NYPD now faces increased scrutiny as, after finding the stop-and-frisk program amounted to "indirect racial profiling" that predominantly and disproportionally targeted blacks and Hispanics Judge Scheindlin ordered the installation an independent monitor to oversee changes to its practices.  But if the NYPD is obviously able to continue making Terry stops – as they must and should – what was the big deal in the first place?  How did their stop & frisk program become so controversial?  Why did they develop a “program” to do what cops are supposed to do anyway, and how did it come under scrutiny of civil rights groups and activists who are fully aware of – and apparently not all that concerned with – cops following the principles of Terry everywhere else?

To fully answer such questions would take far more space than we have here, and digging up all those answers is better suited for lawyers and historians, as well as policy makers who might want to avoid following in the footsteps of “Stop & Frisk” and its rebuke as “unconstitutional.” 

NYPD’s stop & frisk program has its defenders, with many who work in law enforcement and who view Judge Scheindlin’s ruling as a judicial overreach preventing cops from effectively doing their jobs – and possibly setting precedent to extend beyond New York City.  It also has its detractors, including many cops, who found its application was ham-handed, mishandled, and a very likely a constitutional overreach.  Some sharp criticism came from within the NYPD rank-and-file, who leveled charges it was a quota that drove officers to push sacrifice solid policing in favor of the path of least resistance. 


What the matter illustrates strikingly to me is a problem we often seem to have in policing; when it comes to explaining or justifying our actions our efforts too often range from inadequate or clumsy, all the way to arrogant or insulting.  And our well-intentioned solutions and programs frequently fail to account for unintended consequences, or give any thought to how they’ll be perceived by the very public under whose authority we derive our power.  The best intentions, imprudently executed, may yield terrible results.  What follow are questions and lessons we can take from NYPD’s experience to apply to the decisions we make to police our communities.

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