On Sunday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the city’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” program. He said that the police program has a successful track record. He criticized the New York City Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the city over the policy, saying, “They sit there and they pontificate and complain but they don’t do anything. Our police officers put their lives on the lines every single day to protect you and me and our children and grandchildren.”
“Stop-and-frisk” is a policy whereby officers try to reduce crime by stopping and searching people they think are suspicious. Police say the policy reduces crime, and gets guns off the streets. Critics say that it results in black and Hispanic men being targeted for harassment. The policy deserves a closer look, because it affects the daily lives of Latino men in urban areas and raises issues of racial profiling.
Under the Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio decision, police are allowed to stop and search a person as long as they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. But the problem with stop-and-frisk is that too often, it results in violations of the 4th amendment, which guarantees people freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the 14th amendment, which guarantees that all people be treated equally under the law.
Consider that in 2011, the New York Police Department stopped 685,724 people. 87 percent of these suspects were black and Latino (although blacks and Latinos account for less than half of the city’s population). The overwhelming majority of those stopped were innocent of any wrongdoing; 9 out of 10 were not arrested or given a ticket. There were only 0.4 percent arrests for firearms possession.
New York City leads the nation in public policy, on everything from bike lanes to smoking bans. Yet Mayor Bloomberg should learn from other cities. Last year, Philadelphia settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and agreed to cut back on stop-and-frisks. The Philadelphia Police Department now tracks the legality of stops, and has an independent outside monitor. In 2008, Baltimore settled a similar suit, brought by the National Advancement for Colored People. San Diego has ended stop-and-frisks altogether.
For black and Hispanic men, New York’s stop-and-frisk policy means they are disproportionately likely to find themselves randomly questioned, handcuffed, forced up against a wall or face down on the street, or publicly humiliated by police officers. One young black man told the New York Times he had been stopped by the NYPD more than 60 times before age 18. College students, businessmen, and even a New York City Councilman have all been subjected what they described as rough and abusive treatment by law enforcement. No wonder that in May a federal judge found many of the city’s “stops” did not meet legal standards.
Cities across the country have recognized that the costs of the stop-and-frisk program are too high. It creates a fear of the police, rather than trust and respect, which hinders their law enforcement duties. It results in officers questioning people without a legitimate basis for doing so (In New York, the top reason for stopping people is the vague “furtive movements”). And disrupting the lives of young men of color is a waste of police resources and taxpayer money.
Being black or Latino should not be considered “reasonable suspicion” that a person is a criminal. Not in New York, and not in any city. Our cities should not be debating the merits of safe streets over Constitutional rights; the challenge is for law enforcement officials to guarantee both.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.