Diane Dimond: The straight scoop on stop-and-frisk
The police tactic known as stop-and-frisk became a hot topic at the first presidential debate, so let’s take a closer look. Is it unconstitutional?
Imagine you live in a neighborhood that is under the constant threat of violence. Gunshots are heard day and night. You see gang activity and drug activity on street corners. Every time you or your children leave the house, you say a little prayer that everyone gets home safely.
This is a daily reality for countless Americans living in inner-city neighborhoods. The majority of residents in these areas are black and Latino.
Just this week, the FBI reported that street violence in several inner cities pushed the nation’s murder rate upward last year by almost 11 percent.
Yes, overall crime and murder rates have been higher in the past, especially during the 1980s crack epidemic. But common sense shouts that we have a modern-day problem that needs be dealt with.
Police on the beat in violence-prone areas will tell you it’s like going to war every day. The enemy is the bad guy with a gun, but when locals are asked to identify them, they often stay silent. The residents will tell you they either do not trust the cops or are scared to death of the armed gangs roaming their streets.
So what is law enforcement supposed to do?
Enter stop-and-frisk policing. It was devised so stymied police could stop suspicious characters and pat them down for weapons, before something awful happened.
Interestingly, the first legal test of such a case happened back in 1963 in Cleveland, Ohio. Detective Martin McFadden watched two suspicious black men walking repeatedly past a storefront and believed them to be casing it. A white man later joined them. McFadden grabbed one of them, named John Terry, and frisked him. McFadden found a gun, and Terry was arrested on a concealed weapons charge.
The case, which tested the constitutional right of citizens to be safe from illegal search and seizure, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, eight of the nine justices ruled against Terry. It was a landmark decision that concluded that police officers merely need a reasonable suspicion, not probable cause, to stop citizens.
Stop-and-frisk law was enthusiastically instituted and applied in Chicago, Illinois, back in the ’60s, a racially tense time — not unlike today — by Chicago Police Superintendent Orlando Wilson, who believed his officers should be proactive, rather than reactive, to keep communities safe.
Somewhere along the line, the motivation of police officers to stop suspicious people was seen as horribly racist because a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos were being singled out. What a dichotomy! The communities with the highest crime rates were mostly populated by blacks and Latinos, so where else were police supposed to concentrate their efforts?
Common sense tells us it would be foolish for officers to patrol low-crime communities and randomly frisk people living there. That said, it is crystal clear that stop-and-frisk has been very overused in some areas.
As you may have heard during the presidential debate, in 2013, federal Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that New York City’s wholesale stop-and-frisk practices were unconstitutional. Scheindlin based her ruling, in part, on statistics that showed almost 90 percent of those stopped were young black or Latino men who had committed no crime. (Most of the arrested were charged with possession of marijuana.) She ordered the New York Police Department to overhaul the program, but within weeks the U.S. Court of Appeals blocked her order and removed her from the case.
So, is stop-and-frisk now unconstitutional? No. And what you heard at the presidential debate was misleading.
The theory behind the program — to try to stop perps before they hurt the innocent — remains legally sound. As former New York Mayor (and Donald Trump supporter) Rudolph Giuliani said after the debate: “It is still good law, as us lawyers say. And it is being done right this very minute in just about every part of the United States.”
If you remember nothing else from this column, remember that 15,696 Americans were murdered in 2015. The lives of 15,696 fellow citizens were snuffed out last year by street crimes, almost all of them involving guns.
Abolishing stop-and-frisk policy and handcuffing police as they try to keep the peace seems irrational. Calling for better and more discretionary use of stop-and-frisk does not.