The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation …. — Fourth Amendment, U.S. Constitution
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a controversial ruling that seemed to undermine the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, which protects American citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment makes clear that “probable cause,” or a reasonable belief that a person has committed a crime, is the sole criterion upon which officers of the law are supposed to base their decisions to detain, arrest or interrogate a suspect.
But the court’s 1968 ruling in Terry v. Ohio found that the amendment was sufficiently flexible to permit an officer to stop and frisk a suspect solely on what it called “reasonable suspicion,” which it defined as “more than a mere hunch but less than probable cause.”
With this flexibility, police in the city began to implement stop and frisk. The idea that a person must first commit a crime before he and she can be accused of said crime went out the window. “Reasonable suspicion” could be based on almost anything, including the way someone dressed, walked or spoke and the color of someone’s skin.
When skin color or manner of dress can label someone a “potential suspect,” then our civil liberties are being excessively curbed in the name of fighting crime — and with mixed results, at that. The focus of police investigations has skewed sharply toward young people of color, often male, who have been systematically frisked for their appearance, attitude or behavior, leading to the alienation of youth in communities of color and producing a vicious cycle which has only exacerbated, rather than eliminated, crime.
Since stop and frisk became a part of police culture in New York City, there has been virtually no evidence to suggest it has actually been effective in curtailing crime. Communities that feel alienated from society and are targeted by police will tend to believe that they are under siege by a corrupt system. The practice of stop and frisk becomes little more than legalized racial profiling: bad for communities, bad for policing and good for criminals.
Time and again, profiling has been shown to be an ineffective crime-fighting tool. Four years ago, statistics released by the NYPD indicated that more than a half million pedestrians had been stopped on suspicion of a crime in the city. Of those stopped, almost 90 percent were nonwhites. Fifty-three percent of those stopped were black suspects, 29 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent were white and 3 percent were Asian. Of those stopped, 45 percent of black and Hispanic suspects were frisked, compared with just 29 percent of white suspects. Yet incredibly, whites were 70 percent more likely than black suspects to be in possession of a weapon.
Studies by the American Civil Liberties Union have uncovered police data from as far back as the mid-1990s, indicating that while 73 percent of suspects pulled over on I-95 between 1995 and 1997 were black, black suspects were no more likely to be in possession of drugs or illegal weapons than white suspects. According to the Public Health Service, approximately 70 percent of drug users are white, 15 percent are black and 8 percent are Latino — yet the U.S. Department of Justice reports that among those imprisoned on drug charges, 26 percent are white, 45 percent are black and 21 percent are Latino.
No one should have the power to label someone a criminal simply because they observe behavior that they find to be outside the normative parameters of society. No individual should have the authority to cast blame or suspicion upon another or to embarrass and take away someone’s dignity through a needless public search. There is a better way and there always has been.
Two years ago, my office, along with local churches and the NYPD, showed how we can remove hundreds of weapons from the street in just a few hours by sponsoring gun buyback programs. Working with and through the Queens district attorney’s office, my office removed 926 guns from the street in just five hours. Critics charge that only the “good people” turned in their guns, but the fact is that the majority of homicides occur with legally purchased guns, often stolen from the homes of the good people, saving the criminals time and effort. Remove the guns from homes and we make it that much harder for criminals to access weapons.
Additionally, community policing has been a proven and effective way of deterring crime from within. Community policing promotes organizational strategies, partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the conditions that create criminal activities in the first place. In other words, we stop crime before it starts.
These are just some of the methods currently being employed by cities across the country and they have the benefit of creating conditions that are detrimental to crime while not systemically vilifying entire communities. There are many other strategies and techniques that can be employed to fight crime without attacking communities of color.
I encourage the NYPD, the district attorney, the mayor and the City Council to come together to find better, more effective ways to deter crime and break the growing cycle of anger and animosity that exists between communities of color and law enforcement.