On Monday, a federal judge dealt a setback to one of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s signature policies. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that the city’s stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional because it amounted to racial profiling. She found that the police stopped too many innocent people without any legitimate reason. “I also conclude that the city officials have turned a blind eye,” she wrote, “to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory matter.”
Judge Scheindlin’s decision is welcome and overdue. For too long, New York City police have trampled on constitutional rights in the name of crime fighting. The stop-and-frisk policy disproportionately and unfairly targets Hispanics and African-Americans. Meanwhile, it is not clear that the practice is responsible for New York City’s drop in violent crime.
Under the precedent established by Terry v. Ohio, police can stop a person if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that they have committed or are about to commit a crime. But between 2004 and 2012, New York Police Department officers made 4.4 million stops – with only six percent resulting in an arrest, and six percent receiving a summons. In short, 88 percent of the people stopped were innocent. Judge Scheindlin rightly found that this constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. She noted that the top reason given by police for stopping someone was “furtive movements,” an ambiguous catchall phrase which can mean almost anything, from looking over one’s shoulder to reaching in a pocket for a phone or wallet.
In the stop-and-frisk program, Judge Schiendlin also saw clear violations of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which mandates that all people be treated equally under the law. The problem with stop-and-frisk is that it has had the opposite effect; statistics show that the police are treating people differently based on the color of their skin. Consider that 83 percent of the stops between 2004 and 2012 involved African-Americans and Hispanics, although these two groups make up just over half of city residents. African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to be stopped by the police than whites even in neighborhoods that are predominantly white. And police are more likely to use force against minorities despite the fact that minorities are less likely than whites to be carrying weapons.
In her decision, Judge Schiendlin emphasized what she termed “the human toll of unconstitutional stops.” Such costs are not insignificant. “Stop-and-frisk” may sound innocuous. The reality is quite ugly. African-American and Hispanic men who have been stopped by New York City police report being thrown facedown on the pavement, forced up against walls, and spread over the hoods of cars, often at gunpoint and in view of their friends and neighbors. One young man told the New York Times about being unjustifiably stopped 60 times before his 18th birthday. These humiliating experiences can happen to anyone who happens to be African-American or Hispanic, from a college student to a member of the New York City Council. Many encounters are abusive; one young man was told by officers that he was stopped ‘for being a f—ing mutt.”
Mayor Bloomberg defends his stop-and-frisk policy on the grounds that it saves lives. Yet much of the drop in violent crime in New York took place before he instituted the program, and less than two percent of the program’s searches find weapons. Besides, other cities have found success with police practices that do not involve the targeting of minorities. The public should not have to choose between effective policing and civil rights; all citizens deserve both.
Judge Scheindlin’s ruling was fair and just. Mayor Bloomberg must fix his constitutionally defective crime-fighting program.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.