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The Issue with Stop & Frisk

If you’re keen on thrillers and true crime shows, you may well have chanced upon a “Stop & Frisk” scene, which is when the police stop and search individuals that they deem to be suspicious. The procedure is meant to be a brief questioning between the officer and individual, in which they may be temporarily detained and searched. However, Stop & Frisks simply take place whenever an officer has a suspicion or inkling that they wish to act upon, which proves damaging when combined with personal biases and prejudices.


Stop & Frisk came about in 1968 in the case of Terry v. Ohio, a precedential ruling in which the US Supreme Court found that police searches are constitutionally acceptable. It was built on an incident where three men were lingering on a street corner when a police officer, suspicious of these men, frisked the trio and found that two of them were carrying weapons. One of the men, Terry, went to trial where his lawyer argued that the officer’s decision to frisk him had been in violation of the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects people from “unreasonable searches…by the government”.


Upon appeal to the Supreme Court, 8 of 9 justices found that the officer’s frisking had been constitutional, as he had suspected that the men were about to rob the store they were loitering outside of. The majority of the justices believed that, as the officer involved had a “reasonable suspicion” of an upcoming crime, it was right for him to frisk the men. Justice William O. Douglas, the sole dissenter, argued that giving the police such power veered into totalitarianism.


In order to carry out a ‘Stop & Frisk’, the officer must have reasonable cause to believe that the suspected individual has, or is about to, commit a crime and/or is armed. However, if when frisking the suspect the officer feels something like a bag of drugs, they can seize it as evidence to be used later on - it doesn’t have to be arms-related.


A massive issue with the Stop & Frisk policy is that, historically, it has been prone to racial profiling. Worryingly large numbers of police officers often deem black or Hispanic men as suspicious or dangerous over other races. In 2022, studies found that, out of 673,000 traffic stops in New York City, only 2% resulted in arrests; these stops were heavily concentrated on the black and Hispanic population of New York City. In 1999, despite only making up 50% of the population, Black and Hispanic people were the suspects involved in 84% of ‘stop and frisk’ searches in New York City. However, the probability of black people being stopped with arms was half that of the white people searched.


This racial profiling is far too frequent and terrorises young people of colour, eroding trust between communities and the systems that are meant to guard them. While the original intention behind Stop & Frisk was sound, practising the policy in a society as fraught with presumptions and biases as ours means that it loses it’s effectiveness and veers into racially-charged discrimination.


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