4 Ideas for Fixing Stop and Frisk

Experts weigh in on how law enforcement should engage in and implement these tactics.

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This week the U.S. District Court in Manhattan began hearing arguments put forth by four black men who say the New York City Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policy led to racial profiling and violations of their constitutional rights.

To date, this suit is the broadest legal challenge brought against the NYPD practice of frisking people based on nothing more than suspicion of unlawful activity.

Proponents of the policy—including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—say it has lowered crime.

So how do policymakers reduce crime without violating people’s rights and sowing public discord?

Looking at relevant research, it’s clear that police-community relations have uniformly suffered under “stop and frisk.” And, well-respected scholars disagree on how much of New York’s massive drop in violent crime can be attributed to the policy.

Regardless of this negative social impact and lack of crime control evidence, other high-crime cities have replicated the tactic and continue to use it.

On top of that, Supreme Court decisions and related case law indicate that it’s completely constitutional to stop and frisk citizens reasonably believed to be a danger to officers or to be in the process of committing a crime.

And in all fairness, stopping more people in areas known to experience more violent crime is a sensible use of police resources.

So it seems evident that law enforcement agencies will continue to use “stop and frisk” and similar policies. If that’s the case, the real questions we should ask ourselves are how should law enforcement engage in and implement these tactics?

The Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center convened a roundtable of national police practitioners and researchers to explore these questions. Here are the conclusions the roundtable drew:

  • Officers should conduct stops only when they are justified. By this standard, officers should be required to file a report explaining the reason for and context surrounding the stop, along with the ultimate outcome (arrest, weapons or drug confiscation, etc.).
  • Police leadership, commanders, and managers should communicate a clear, uniform message about the purpose of the practice and lay out the expectations for police conduct. Officers should be trained to conduct stops legally and respectfully. In essence, they need to “sell the stop” to citizens by explaining the purpose behind it, how it links to the agency’s crime control efforts, and why it benefits the public.
  • Law enforcement executives should institute a zero-tolerance policy for police misconduct associated with stops, coordinating with internal affairs and publicizing cases when officers are reprimanded or terminated for veering from “stop and frisk” policy guidelines.
  • Police agencies must reach out to the communities most affected by stops. It is essential to enlist a community’s support and encourage residents to come forward when stops are not administered respectfully and lawfully.

These four steps are consistent with community policing principles. In addition, research shows that when residents are treated respectfully by the police, they are more likely to view their treatment as fair, regardless of the outcome.

Toward that end, viewing the community as partners in crime control while engaging in “stop and frisk” will increase witness cooperation and case clearances, further reducing crime.

In other words, if these adjustments are made, community residents will likely feel safer and more confident that their civil rights are being respected.

Photo by Flickr user futureatlas under Creative Commons license (CC by 2.0)

About the Author

  • Nancy G. La Vigne is director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she oversees spanning a wide array of crime, justice, and public safety topics.