Stop, Frisk, and Ask Questions Later

Stop, Frisk, and Ask Questions Later

March 24, 2010 | Christopher Hartney, Senior Researcher, NCCD

To do their difficult work—indeed, because their work is so difficult—police officers need the support of effective and appropriate policies. However, good intentions and a real or perceived success at crime reduction do not justify a police tactic that violates the law or ethical standards. The New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy and practice may violate both.

To do their difficult work—indeed, because their work is so difficult—police officers need the support of effective and appropriate policies. However, good intentions and a real or perceived success at crime reduction do not justify a police tactic that violates the law or ethical standards. The New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy and practice may violate both.

As has been pointed out elsewhere (see the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/opinion/02herbert.html and the New York Civil Liberties Union http://www.nyclu.org/issues/racial-justice/stop-and-frisk-practices), this policy is strongly unbalanced toward targeting innocent individuals, people of color, and the poor. Nearly 90% of those subject to the policy were people of color. Few of those stopped were found to be involved in criminal activity. And the data that is collected and held pose serious privacy risks for those not connected to crime. The policy and how it is carried out raises serious constitutional and ethical questions about privacy, equity, the assumption of innocence, and the protection of basic human dignity.

An overly simple response by some is to say that falling crime rates in NYC indicates that stop-and-frisk is working and therefore unobjectionable. First of all, an actual cause-and-effect connection between the increased stops and decreased crime has not been borne out in targeted research. Even if there were a positive impact, and even if the practice had a basis in legitimate police strategies, the program in NYC is out of control and needs revision. From 2004 to 2009, 2.8 million people were stopped, and almost 90% of them were never charged or connected to crime.

Such heavy-handed and inefficient tactics are not smart policing. Surely the NYPD doesn’t need to rely on gross measures like the blanket targeting of whole sections of the population. The Department should base its actions on policies that encourage the trust and cooperation of city residents, rather than those that foster fear and distrust—a probable by-product of unchecked stop-and-frisk.

Another troubling aspect of New York City’s program is the “databasing” of personal information of those stopped, even when no crime is found to have taken place. As a nonprofit social science research organization, NCCD has a special interest in the collection and appropriate use of data. On the one hand, NYC deserves credit. The fact is that most US cities don’t do a thorough job of collecting street stop information or of making it available for analysis and public discussion. The details of the inner workings of law enforcement, especially those that may give insights to the thought processes and complicated decisions made by police officers in the street on a daily basis, are generally closely guarded by police departments. Yet this type of information, in the aggregate, is of great worth to law enforcement analysts as well as independent researchers.

However, as with the stop-and-frisk practice, the data collection goes too far in infringing on individuals. We strongly oppose the warehousing of personal information (including names and addresses) of those stopped when no crime is connected to that individual and when no charges are filed. Social science researchers protect personal information due to the potential for harm to the individual of mishandling information. In the case of police data, the holding of this data only exacerbates the potential for harm on the innocent caused by the stops themselves, harm that goes well beyond personal indignities to include intimidation, harassment, and negative impacts on a person status at work, at school, and in the community.

New York City, and other jurisdictions using similar tactics, should cease, review, and revise its stop-and frisk-policy to bring it back into compliance with basic ethical practice and sound policing. 

Christopher Hartney is a Senior Researcher at NCCD.