Stop and Frisk: A Constitutional but Temporary Solution

In Monday night’s presidential debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Republican candidate Donald Trump how he would reduce inner city crime, and Trump stated that stop and frisk would be most effective towards this end. Holt, in an effort to “fact check” Trump, asserted that stop and frisk had been ruled unconstitutional. Although Holt’s interjection is misleading, both Trump and Clinton pointed towards temporary, not lasting, solutions to the decline of America’s inner cities.

Stop and frisk was first implemented in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. Under stop and frisk,

“When a police officer reasonably suspects that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, the officer is authorized by NYS Criminal Procedure Law 140.50 to stop, question and possibly frisk that individual.”  

Stop and frisk was intended to reduce crime in the city and continued under Mayor Bloomberg.  In 2013, District Judge Shira Scheindlin, in Floyd v. City of New York and Ligon v. City of New York, ruled that stop and frisk was unconstitutional and a form of “indirect racial profiling.” Many assume that this decision makes stop and frisk wholly unconstitutional. This is incorrect. The decision was made in a district court and could have been appealed. Only rulings made by the Supreme Court are considered to be constitutional or unconstitutional once and for all.

In fact, SCOTUS ruled on stop and frisk in 1968 in Terry v. Ohio.  The court ruled that the practice is, indeed, constitutional, citing that the Fourth Amendment only protects against unreasonable search and seizure. SCOTUS deemed it constitutional “to permit a reasonable search for weapons for the protection of the police officer, where he has reason to believe that he is dealing with an armed and dangerous individual, regardless of whether he has probable cause to arrest the individual for crime.” In the opinion, Chief Justice Warren made it clear that these reasonable searches are justified in order to protect both the officer and the public. The pedestrian stop practice is intended to secure the public’s safety by ensuring that the searched individual is not in possession of any illegal weapons.

Contrary to popular belief, stop and frisk was highly effective at reducing crime while it was practiced in New York City. While stop and frisk was implemented, murders declined by 80% and major felonies by 75%. According to Heather MacDonald, in 2011, “stops yielded nearly 800 guns and over 5,000 other weapons.” Additionally, a study conducted by David Weisburd indicated that crime in NYC shooting hot spots declined when stop and frisk was practiced.  As a result of stop and frisk, these hot spots experienced a decrease in crime while the number of police officers patrolling the area also declined.  

Justice Scheindlin’s opinion in Floyd v. City of New York asserts that the NYPD’s application of stop and frisk was a form of racial profiling. She stated that the ratio of pedestrian stops by skin color should be consistent with the demographics of the population. Based on 2010 census results, 33.3% of NYC residents are white, while 25.5% are black and 28.6% are Hispanic, so, accordingly, 33.3% of pedestrian stops should be of whites, 25.5% of blacks, and 28.6% of Hispanics. Thus, according to Justice Scheindlin, since 52% of the stops conducted in NYC between 2004 and 2012 were of blacks and 31% were of Hispanics, racial profiling was evident. Justice Scheindlin’s logic is flawed, however, as she does not take into account the breakdown of crimes committed by different demographics.  

In 2015, 92% of all violent crimes in NYC were committed by minorities. If the aim of police is to prevent crime, and the majority of the crimes are being committed by minorities, why would the police spend equal amounts of time patrolling predominantly white neighborhoods as they do minority neighborhoods? This would be illogical, inefficient, and harmful to communities where violent crime is occurring. Minorities in high crime neighborhoods are actually safer with a higher police presence. To be clear, officers cannot conduct a stop and frisk solely based on race; it would be wholly unacceptable for an officer to stop someone because they are black or Hispanic.  The officer must have reason for conducting the stop, such as suspicious behavior. While it is unfortunate that minorities commit the majority of violent crimes in inner cities, and there are a variety of underlying reasons for this, we cannot ignore the data and prohibit police from doing their jobs and keeping cities safe.  

The root of America’s problem is a culture in inner cities that exacerbates crime and violence. The Left must face reality, and the reality is that our inner cities are in shambles. Both parties should be less focused on conducting pedestrian stops and more focused on rebuilding our cities so every person has a decent opportunity to thrive and live out the American dream. This can be done in a number of ways. First, encouraging capital investment in these areas can drastically improve the culture and quality of life in these areas, as can be seen by the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods in Boston and other cities. An increased police presence in crime-ridden neighborhoods can help deter crime. Improved access to school choice and vocational schools can ensure that youth receive the education and skills they need to thrive in college and in the workplace, among other factors.  

It is time that the Left, Justice Sheindlin, and others stop blaming racism as the cause of the violence and deterioration in our cities. Stop and frisk, while it does lower crime rates when properly applied, is not a long term solution to permanently reducing violent crime in America’s cities. Politicians must stop getting sidetracked by short term solutions such as stop and frisk or “implicit bias” training for cops when these problems can be more effectively addressed through investment and education. These improvements will obviously never eradicate crime for good, but they will go a long way to improving our inner cities

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