Stop and Frisk Stops Nothing

Authored By 
Michael Sierra-Arevalo
Blog contributor 
Graduate Student
August 23, 2013

Michael Sierra-Arevalo is a graduate student at Yale in the Department of Sociology and a former ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow. This was originally posted on Policymic and is reposted with permission from the author.

Amidst much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD officials, Manhattan Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that stop-and-frisk violates both rights protecting individuals against unwarranted searches, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause. The stop-and-frisk strategy, according to Judge Scheindlin, is built on “indirect racial profiling,” and unfairly targets young men of color in New York City. The data produced by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and subsequent analysis seems to support this conclusion: Of the 532,911 searches in 2012 (which is an over 500% increase in stop-and-frisks since 2002), 55% of those stopped were black, 32% were Latino, and just 10% were white.    

The benefits of stop-and-frisk are also questionable. From over half a million stops, 732 firearms were recovered by police in 2012, meaning it took about 1,000 stops to recover a single firearm. Leaving aside the money and time wasted in this effort, Tracey Meares of Yale Law School has stated,“That’s a really, really small number for the kind of intrusion of liberty that has to be sustained.” 

Worse, strong evidence points to lingering, unseen costs of the now millions of intrusions on liberty since 2002. Research has linked negative police interactions with citizens (such as those depicted in a recent video put out by The Nation) to subsequent feelings of resentment, anger, and distrust towards law enforcement. Simply put, when people don’t trust police and feel that police actions are predatorily discriminatory, instead of dignified and fair, they are less likely to obey the law. Stop-and-frisk may well be creating an entire generation of young men who have been taught through experience (millions of times over) to not trust police.

Sadly, the court did not order an outright end to stop-and-frisk, but instead called for more stringent oversight and measures like body-mounted cameras on officers in five precincts.  But it’s highly unlikely that GoPro cameras will do much to address negligence on the part of NYPD and New York City leadership, not to mention the damage that has been done and will likely continue to be done in minority communities if stop-and-frisk continues unabated. The question, then, remains: What should we do instead?

Violence-reduction initiatives like Project Longevity in New Haven, CT, Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago, and Ceasefire-Boston offer a promising alternative strategy, in line with Attorney General Eric Holder’s recently announced “Smart on Crime” initiative. Acknowledging that “we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer country,” Holder stated that efficient and fair community-level interventions mean “we can become both smarter and tougher on crime.”

To that end, Longevity and programs like it turn away from indiscriminate policing techniques like mass arrests, police sweeps, and stop-and-frisk. Instead, these micro-targeted projects use administrative arrest records, police intelligence, and input from community leaders and social workers to identify individuals who are most at risk of both being perpetrators and victims of gun violence. That’s a key difference: Unlike stop-and frisk where minority men are stopped on the basis of nothing more than their age, skin color, and “furtive movements,” the individuals targeted for inclusion in Longevity have been pre-identified based on past behavior and verifiable data.   

As for what the programs actually do, that too is a departure from more traditional policing strategies. While Longevity promises to enact swift and severe local, state, and federal law enforcement action on individuals who do not heed warnings to put down their weapons, the program offers individuals an “honorable exit” by way of social services that include housing assistance, health care, substance addiction, anger management, job skills training, GED classes, and a host of other services.

Though the Project in New Haven is less than a year old, results from Chicago and Boston speak to the efficacy of such an approach. In areas where Chicago’s program was implemented, there was a 37% drop in the homicide rate. Ceasefire-Boston saw a 68% reduction in gun violence. It’s time to move beyond stop-and-frisk, and to embrace tactics that work and, perhaps more importantly, do not further alienate the very people who need our help the most.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Lux et Data blog, nor of ISPS.

Area of study 
Criminal Justice