Stop and Frisk Finally Ruled Unconstitutional


In what could only be hailed as a huge day of victory for everyone that would like to see an end to racial profiling, a federal judge has found that the racist NYPD policy of stop and frisk impinged on the constitutional rights of thousands of New Yorkers. Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge presiding over the ruling, came to the conclusion that the policy methodically targeted certain groups of people without any sort of objective rationale.

The judge's ruling creates a significant obstacle for Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD chief Ray Kelly (who may not be in NYC for much longer anyways) to carry out racist policing policies. The ruling also gives people of color living in the Big Apple a modicum of security, perhaps, in knowing that a police officer isn't liable to approach them at any point and humiliate them.  The ruling is also consistent with the Fourth Amendment, that pesky little thing that mandates that searches and seizures be under reasonable suspicion.

Stop and Frisk is a policing policy practiced in major cities like New York and Philadelphia that mandate that officers stop and question individuals believed to have committed or be on the verge of committing a felony or misdemeanor. If the officer claims to have reasonable suspicion, they can frisk the subject. A huge problem with this policy, unsurprisingly, is that reasonable suspicion has not been formally defined in any meaningful way.

Leaving reasonable suspicion totally up to police officers' intuition allows for institutional racism (racism expressed through habit, not merely intent) to rear its ugly head, and predictably, the policy has disastrous results for people of color. 86% of those stopped and frisked in New York City were black and Latino, and 88% of all stop and frisk encounters did not result in an arrest or a court summons. In other words, this is a failure of a policy even disregarding ethical or constitutional objections.

From a constitutional perspective, the policy is a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Stopping and frisking an individual largely on account of what an individual looks like is the very definition of an unreasonable search and seizure. There are two ways that the policy of stop and frisk could be seen as constitutional. The first is if you really believe that people of color are inherently more violent and drug prone thus ought to be subjected to stop and frisk at abnormally higher rates. The second is if you take the Stephen Colbert approach, which could be characterized as the head-in-the-sand method. When faced with overwhelming numbers and statistics, rather than counter the argument, the response this approach typically generates is "you're bring race into this" — as if race was never an issue in the first place.

Where the mayor and police chief go from here will be interesting to see. While there is not going to be a complete stop to the policy as a whole (the judge was careful not to step on a previous Supreme Court ruling), the judge did assign an independent monitor to oversee reforms made to the program. Some of the reforms include pilot programs officers wearing body cameras in an effort to record their interactions, as well as community meetings in which local residents provide input on policing strategies. It is unclear how successful these reforms will be, but they are clear attempts at breaking the cycle of mistrust that plague communities of color and law enforcement, and that's a pretty important step.