14 Pros and Cons of Stop and Frisk Law and Policy

The stop and frisk law and policy were implemented in New York City involves the temporary detainment of an individual to determine if there is something illegal on their person. These actions are sometimes referred to as “Terry stops” because the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1968 that police officers had limited approval to conduct frisks even if there was a lack of probable cause for an arrest. This ruling found that a suspicion of danger to an officer is grounds for a reasonable search.

There are more than 100,000 stop and frisk stops that occur in New York City every year. Between 2002-2013, the number of people stopped without any convictions was over 87%. There were over 685,000 stops in 2011 alone, and 88% of those actions did not result in a conviction.

Although courts have found the implementation of stop and frisk laws and policies to be unconstitutional based on the racial profiling that seems to occur, it still takes placed under the 2017 Right to Know Act that the city council passed in 2017. Under this new approach, business cards that include the name and rank of an officer must be given to an individual. There must now be an objective reason to conduct a frisk.

List of the Pros of a Stop and Frisk Law and Policy

1. Stop and frisk laws have helped to get weapons off of the street.
Over a period of 10 years, there were a total of 4.4 million stop and frisk temporary detentions that took place in and around New York City. The official statistics show that 1.5% of those engagements with the public found a weapon on that individual. That means police officers were able to remove over 66,000 items that could have been used to harm someone else in the future.

The arrest rate may be low with stop and frisk as well, but an average of 10% still means that there were 440,000 arrests made that may not have happened otherwise. Those are significant numbers that can justify to many city officials that the policies are working.

2. This law or policy targets high crime areas, not racial or ethnic minorities.
For better or worse, police departments use stop and frisk procedures in areas where the crime rates remain persistently high. When this application occurs in New York City, it is in areas that are predominantly occupied by racial or ethnic minorities. There are many systemic reasons why the people in these neighborhoods face this issue, including socioeconomic disadvantages, but that doesn’t change the need to keep people safe.

If the highest crime areas of a city are where minorities live, then it is a reasonable outcome that a majority of the people stopped during a stop and frisk temporary detainer are going to come from a minority group.

3. It creates significant reductions in crime.
After the implementation of the stop and frisk policy in New York City, crime rates went down by about 20%. Cities like Newark that implemented similar policies, even if they call them by the more politically correct name of “field inquiries,” see similar results. It is a form of proactive policing that seeks to stop something bad from happening before it starts. Although some individuals are stopped on the street without having done anything to warrant a contact, most of these incidents occur after a call for service.

By allowing police officers the opportunity to pat someone down before investigating the reasons for a call, it creates a safer environment for everyone. It prevents someone from purchasing or carrying a firearm, another weapon, or illegal substances because no one knows for certain when a law enforcement contact may occur.

4. There was a significant reduction in homicide rates.
There were 496 homicides registered in New York City in 2007. When crime rates were peaking in 1990, the police department investigated over 2,200 homicides in a single year. Stop and frisk laws and policies were given credit for that reduction. This advantage correlates with a 37% reduction in property crime that occurred between 2001-2010 and a 37% decline in violent crime during the same period.

When correctly implemented, stop and frisk has a significantly positive effect on crimes against persons, even in areas where chronic crime exists.

5. There are multiple ways to prepare officers to accurately implement police discretion.
The decision of a police officer to detain someone temporarily on a suspicion of criminal conduct is an exercise in law enforcement discretion. Even though some individuals may abuse this discretion to follow their own bias or racial profiling preferences, the best practices show that effective hiring, proper training, straightforward administrative guidance, and informed supervisory oversight all help to ensure that this advantage is exercised justly and fairly.

6. Recent changes to stop and frisk policies encourage more privacy.
Police officers must gain voluntary consent that is intelligent, knowing, and without coercion to perform a search without legal justification. Law enforcement officers must make it clear to people that they can refuse a search and affirm that individuals understand what is happening. The new Right to Know laws in NYC even require officers to record a person giving or refusing consent by hand or through the use of a body camera.

These consent requirements are not necessary for warrant-based searches or other exceptions that exist to the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

List of the Cons of a Stop and Frisk Law and Policy

1. It is a policy that can be easily abused.
Stop and frisk policies make it easier for police officers to follow their hunches instead of having objective evidence or a reasonable suspicion that something illegal may be occurring. This disadvantage is why the NYC version of this law and policy was ruled to be unconstitutional in the first place. Officers were engaging with African-Americans and Hispanics 83% of the time using this option to frisk, yet these two population demographics make up about half of the residents in the area.

That means the tactics of stop and frisk have an element of racial profiling to them. This outcome means there is an atmosphere of fear surrounding specific ethnicities or racial groups instead of assessing the situation for what it is. In 2013, an officer reported that his commanding officer told him to implement this policy by stopping the right people, at the right time, at the right location with reference to male African-Americans between the ages of 14-21.

2. Stop and frisk laws are invasive to the privacy of the individuals.
If a police officer becomes suspicious of you, then a stop and frisk law or policy gives them the right to temporarily detain you. That detention means there is a possible risk of harm to the law enforcement official, so they conduct a “reasonable” search to determine if you are not carrying anything that could hurt them. The Fourth Amendment gives individuals a right against unreasonable search or seizure, and then the 14th Amendment offers equal protection.

In NYC, officers would engage with people simply because they looked suspicious in their opinion. That’s why barely 10% of the incidents ever resulted in a conviction, which is a statistic that holds up over almost 20 years.

3. This policy rarely lives up to its promise when implemented.
New York City is not the only location where stop and frisk policies saw some action. When officers search an individual for a firearm, it is found in only 2% of all total searches, despite the fact that the increase in searches between 2002-2011 went up by 600%. Although there were drops in crime that may be due to this policy, cities like Los Angeles saw 50% declines by using alternative policing procedures that didn’t involve an invasion of privacy like this law does.

More importantly, NYC did not see a drop in gun-related crime because of stop and frisk when other cities were using alternative measures with more success.

4. It creates a fear-based society in the city.
With a stop and frisk law or policy active, anyone can become a target of law enforcement at any time. That means you can be out running errands with the kids, and then have a police officer come up to temporarily detain you for frisking. That’s why many people see this policy as allowing threats or even violence against people who are ultimately innocent. While looking for someone suspicious, it is entirely possible that someone with ill intent could commit a crime because the attention of officers is elsewhere.

5. The legislation is based on stereotypes more than it is proactive policing.
The idea behind the initial stop and frisk laws in the 1960s were based on the implementation and enforcement of loitering and vagrancy laws. “A police officer observes a subject, unshaven and poorly attired, carrying a new and obviously expensive radio in an area where a number of appliance warehouses are located,” wrote John Duffy, Jr. for the Cornell Law Review in May 1968. “Law enforcement officials again argue that the officer should have authority to stop and question the subject, and detain him, should he fail to dispel the suspicion aroused.”

The premise of the legal system in the United States is that you are innocent until you are proven guilty. Stop and frisk policies and laws reverse that idea. The law enforcement official believes you are guilty until the lack of content found on your body proves that you are innocent.

6. It generated a significant surge of complaints against the police department.
When the stop and frisk policies began to expand, the New York Police Department began to move away from the broken windows theory that was the initial foundation of the program. It became a zero-tolerance approach to issues of social disorder. If officers suspected someone of prostitution, loitering, vandalism, public intoxication, or even panhandling, then there was enough justification in their minds to engage with the potential suspect.

As the NYPD moved away from its initial philosophies, the number of complaints filed by citizens against officers began to climb dramatically. About 1 in 4 complains filed against the police department in 2004 involved this policy. By 2008, that figure had climbed to over 32%.

7. There are numerous social costs to consider with stop and frisk.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that the implementation of a stop and frisk policy has a significantly negative social impact on the community – especially for those who come from an ethnic minority. Over 40% of people in a Vera Institute of Justice study said that they’d been repeatedly stopped by the NYPD and frisked, often more than 9 times. About 70% said that they were never informed of the reason for the temporary detention.

45% of those who said that officers used the stop and frisk policy to pat them down were exposed to threats from the officer involved. That’s about the same number who said that they experienced physical force by the law enforcement official during the incident. 25% stated that the police officer displayed their weapon during the incident.

8. It can still create life threatening situations for the officers or the individual.
Terry stops were responsible for the contacts that police officers had with Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. In each incident, the suspects lost their lives in a series of disputed circumstances while their actions were questionable. Garner was reportedly selling cigarettes illegally in front of a store. Brown was walking with a friend down the middle of the street. Gray fled officers when they attempted to stop and question him.

We must remember that suspects deserve the chance to walk away from contact with a police officer just as law enforcement officials deserve to go home at night as well. There is always a risk that a stop and frisk contact can create a life threatening situation in just seconds.

Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Stop and Frisk Law and Policy

It is important to point out that the 2013 ruling on stop and frisk law and policy applied to how the New York Police Department applied the statute. Many other communities are handling this situation with fewer racial profiling issues, common sense engagements, and an overall respect for the general public.

There is not a justice system on this planet that is 100% perfect. Every police department will have someone who governs their actions through fear and bias instead of logic and common sense.

The pros and cons of stop and frisk law and policy ae ultimately about trying to keep the public safe. Although the success rate for convictions is low, as is the arrest rate, it can also be an effective way to proactively stop incidents from occurring.

Author Bio
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.