Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The judge who ruled NYC’s use of the practice unconstitutional reflects on progress in policing.
Four years ago this week, federal court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the way New York police officers were stopping and frisking individuals amounted to racial discrimination, and was hence unconstitutional. Speaking before the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement [NOBLE] earlier this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave what sounded like an endorsement of the exact policing practice Scheindlin (who’s since retired) counseled against.
“We absolutely must not abandon proven, constitutional techniques and procedures,” said Sessions at the NOBLE conference. “We don’t need to be telling police not to do their job in those communities.”
But it was Sessions’ conclusion about these practices that most echoed the rhetoric of stop-and-frisk’s heydey: "We cannot let the politicians, as they sometimes do, run down police and communities that are suffering only to see crime spike in those communities.”
Donald Trump also boldly invoked stop-and-frisk by name during his campaign and as president as a solid violent crime reduction strategy. In New York City, stop-and-frisk has been scaled back considerably since Judge Scheindlin forced the NYPD to change its police practices four years ago. There has been no corresponding upsurge in violent crime; in fact, there’s been a decrease in violent crime.
“It wasn't an effective practice, it didn't stop crime,” says Scheindlin, who’s now an attorney with the Stroock law firm in New York. “The police and the community are now interacting better, because the community is less suspicious of the police and don't think they are going to be stopped for no reason and harassed. For the President and the Attorney General to now say that we have to up the amount of bad interactions is not going to benefit anybody. It's just going to lead to more violent encounters, more civilians being hurt, probably more police getting hurt, which isn't in anybody's interest, and to less cooperation.”
Before 2013, it looked like New York City police were drunk on stop-and-frisk—the numbers from that era are staggering, as read from Scheindlin’s ruling:
- Between January 2004 and June 2012, the NYPD conducted over 4.4 million
stops, over half (52 percent) of which were for African Americans compared to 10 percent for whites.
- The number of stop more than doubled from 314,000 in 2014 to 686,000 in 2011, at the peak of New York City’s stop-and-frisk regime. No actual law enforcement action was taken in 88 percent of those cases.
- People were frisked in 52 percent of those stops, but a weapon was found in only 1.5 percent of those cases.
- Police used force against African Americans in 23 percent of those stops compared to 17 percent of the stops of whites.
- In 2013, African Americans and Latinos were stopped-and-frisked more often than whites, 60.1 percent vs 46.7 percent, but weapons were almost twice as likely to be found on whites than blacks or Latinos.
The infographic below, created by Rose Lenehen of the Prison Policy Initiative, gives you a picture of how stark the racial disparities were in New York City before Judge Scheindlin’s ruling:
As for what stop-and-frisk has looked like since ruled unconstitutional, the NYPD monitor’s latest report shows there’s been much to celebrate. The number of reported stops of African Americans and Latinos had already begun to drop from its 2011 peak to 159,379 in 2013, when the police department was court-ordered to scale down these activities. By 2014, the stops dropped to 36,808 in 2014, and dropped even lower in 2015 to 18,449.
Judge Scheindlin wrote for the National Black Law Journal last year that this is worth applauding: “This is a 96 percent decrease from the height in 2011 of more than 600,000 stops! And what has happened with crime statistics in the meantime? They have remained steady! … the enormous decrease in stops has clearly not caused an upsurge in crime despite alarmist predictions by our former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelley.”
But there is still much to scrutinize about the New York police department. While the monitor recorded an overall drop in the number of stops, African Americans and Latinos are still getting stopped at much higher rates than whites. It’s bittersweet to understand that the rate of police stops for African Americans and Latinos are only recently reaching what the stoppage rate was for whites at the time of Scheindlin’s ruling.
Another bittersweet outcome of the past few years is that it appears New York City police are getting smarter, and rougher, with their stops. While the number of stops has declined, the percentages of frisks, searches and arrests have increased. But so has the percentage of use of force.
Police weapon recovery rates are also improving—of the stops made in 2013 under suspicion of weapons possession, only 1.9 percent actually recovered a weapon. In 2015, with fewer stops, 4.8 percent led to weapons recovery. One could deduce that when police aren’t over-occupied with stopping nearly everyone they encounter that they could spend more time strategizing around who might actually be carrying a gun or knife. Still, there are flaws in the data because transparency is still a problem within the police department.
The Center for Constitutional Rights wrote on the fourth anniversary of Judge Scheindlin’s’s ruling:
Four years on, and despite the progress made thus far, it's clear that we still have a long way to go. While documented stops are down, we know that many encounters with police aren't actually recorded, raising the question of whether they're being done lawfully. In addition, the numbers demonstrate that stark racial disparities in who is stopped remain. The independent monitor's report, filed in May of this year, highlighted the fact that Black pedestrians are significantly more likely than whites to be frisked during a stop, but that these searches are much less likely to turn up a weapon. … The current system lacks transparency — the public is never told whether an officer will be disciplined for infractions — which in turn worsens the already justified mistrust that Black and Brown communities in NYC feel toward the NYPD.
It’s not just in New York City where stop-and-frisk was utilized to questionable results. The practice was hardly effective on crime in Trump’s favorite “inner-city” target, Chicago, at the height of that city’s police department’s stop-and-frisk regime. It did produce plenty of racial profiling, though—the kind of profiling that led Judge Scheindlin to rule it unconstitutional in New York City. Meanwhile, in 2014, Chicago was stopping/frisking at four times the rate that New York City was at its peak.
A WBEZ investigation into Chicago police during that era found “negative trends as officers reported more stops: Gun seizures dropped, detectives solved fewer murders, and a decade-long decline in gun violence ended.”
“Those numbers did not improve as the department developed one of the most intense stop-and-frisk programs in the nation,” in 2014 under former Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy, wrote WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell. Chicago police have since backed off of stop-and-frisk, as ordered by a court after a legal battle with the ACLU settled in August 2015.
But here we are in August 2017, and the Attorney General and the White House are still trying to make stop-and-frisk happen. Scheindlin, says Trump might just be speaking out of “ignorance” or a misguided idea that stop-and-frisk reduces crime. But Sessions, who has tremendous law enforcement experience, “does know better,” says Scheindlin.
“I don't know whether he's just towing what he believes to be the party line that his president wants to hear, or whether he definitely believes that somehow if you ratchet up sentences and have jails filled with people that somehow that's going to make this country a better place,” says Scheindlin. “I think that's misplaced. We already have one of the highest jail populations in the world and we know both stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration are certainly slanted against people of color. I think that these two people think that their base wants them to say the things that they are saying.”