The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 15, 2014

What can we learn from stop and frisk?

October 15, 2014

Perspectives on policing vary considerably. It’s like the parable about the group of blindfolded people in a room who all touch different parts of the elephant and have distinctly different notions of what it is. Depending on who you are and where you sit, you have a different perception of where the field of policing is and where it needs to go. And in the case of stop and frisk, it also depends on where you live and the color of your skin.

The topic of stop and frisk was sizzling hot just a few years ago, when the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the venerable “poster child” for stop and frisk, held up the practice as instrumental in reducing violent crime. In a manner that harkens back to the days of CompStat, many police agencies followed NYPD’s lead, adopting the practice of intensive, targeted stopping and frisking of “suspicious” residents in the name of ridding narcotics and weapons from the streets.

Last year, NYPD was found in violation of the Constitution in the landmark case Floyd, et al. v. City of New York. The ruling followed on the heels of a persuasive body of evidence that NYPD’s policy of targeted, quota-driven stopping and frisking of pedestrians was severely damaging to the individuals—predominantly young men of color—who are stopped and the community’s collective view of the legitimacy of police. Shortly after the ruling, Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, appointing police commissioner Bill Bratton and vowing to eliminate the practice of stop and frisk.

Stop and frisk over, right?

Wrong, for two reasons.

First, pedestrian stops, frisks, and searches remain a tool in every officer’s tool box and are constitutionally supported under certain, specific circumstances. So even as the New York City approach to stop and frisk comes to an end, the practice is still likely to continue to some degree in communities throughout the country.

And second, stop and frisk is but one component of a larger policing approach supported by research: that targeting law enforcement resources to historically high crime places and times—“putting cops on dots”—is an effective crime control practice and thus a widely accepted law enforcement tactic.

A few weeks ago, following Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of an ambitious initiative to build trust between police and the communities they serve, I was chatting with a 20-year veteran of a major city police department who currently serves as cofounder of the Center for Policing Equity. I asked whether she had a view of how communities experience “hot spot” policing—does it feel like stop and frisk to them even if that’s not what the officers are doing? Her answer was a resounding yes. Of course they do.

The truth is that residents, particularly people living in communities of color with high crime, have long been subject to targeted police presence in a variety of forms. Stop and frisk, "broken windows" policing (when police crack down on low-level quality of life offenses), "hot spots" policing—call it what you will, it’s intensive. And when that presence is disrespectful at a minimum and unconstitutional at its worst, you might have less crime but you also have residents who view the police as the enemy. That's because interactions between police and residents can be conducted with little or no attention to principles of procedural justice.

Such interactions may be isolated but egregious, as in the case of the officer who allegedly stole* $1,300 during a stop, or ubiquitous, as part of the culture of a police department that views residents as guilty of driving while black. But one thing's for certain: regardless of frequency, they have a pernicious way of breaking down trust between police and the community members they are charged with protecting. The lessons of Ferguson, MO demonstrate the results of that mistrust all too clearly.

So what are the options for reform? How do we reconcile evidence-based policing with the realities of how such targeted enforcement is experienced by residents? Using the case of stop and frisk as a guide, we can draw important lessons about conducting policing strategies in ways that are respectful and just, as well as effective. As highlighted in our new publication on stop and frisk, doing so requires talking to the community, training and holding officers accountable, and demonstrating leadership of elected officials and police executives as well as the commanders, lieutenants, and sergeants who deliver the message to line officers.

Across all three of these activities, we have to start with candid conversations that don’t tiptoe around the topic of race. As David Kennedy describes in his compelling book Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America, the path to better police-community relations is paved in racial reconciliation. It also requires us all to confront the implicit biases that we hold. Only then can the lessons of procedural justice take hold in a way that engenders a real shift in police-community relationships.

So while the use of intensive, targeted stop and frisk may be increasingly a relic of the past, what we’ve seen in New York and elsewhere is that a new strategy is bound to take its place. And the common theme across all these efforts is that they are focused in marginalized communities where victimization is often high and channels to seek support are often limited. Strengthening  police and community relationships through dialogue and respect rather than through intensive enforcement is clearly the avenue toward greater trust, and ultimately to safer communities.

*This post has been updated to reflect NYPD's position that the officer seized $62 and properly vouchered the cash at the precinct. An Internal Affairs investigation has cleared him of wrongdoing.

Photo: In this July 18, 2012 photo, A woman and children walk past a street mural depicting individual rights during a "Stop and Frisk" on in New York. The New York City Council Public Safety Committee will hear proposals to impose new requirements for police “stop-and-frisk" encounters, a strategy of detaining and sometimes searching anyone officers deem suspicious, but critics argue the practice is discriminatory and unfairly targets minorities. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

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