Debating "Stop and Frisk": Race, Rights, and Law Enforcement

Two student readings examine the history of stop and frisk and the debate surrounding this policing practice.

To the Teacher: 

Is the practice known as "stop and frisk" a legitimate tool of law enforcement, or does it result in a form of racial profiling in which people of color are considered suspicious for walking down the street? This question has been hotly debated in the news over the past year as a series of lawsuits in New York have challenged stop and frisk. These cases have implications for people all over the country, as the use of stop and frisk has spread to police forces in other American cities. 

This lesson consists of two student readings that examine the debates surrounding stop and frisk. The first reading looks at the history of the practice, its legal foundations, and its application in major American cities. The second reading considers the debate about several key questions: Does stop and frisk work? Is it a form of racial profiling? Is it constitutional? 

Questions for student discussion follow each reading. 



Ask students if they have ever heard the term "stop and frisk."  Write the term on the board, circle it, and record students' responses. 

Explain or elicit that stop and frisk is a policy that allows policy to stop anyone walking down the street and search them for weapons or contraband if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that the person has contraband. 

Do students know if police in their community use the stop and frisk policy?  

Tell students that we'll learn more about the debate over stop and frisk in the readings to follow.



Student Reading 1
What is "Stop and frisk?

Should police be able to stop anyone walking down the street and search them for weapons or contraband if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that the person has contraband? Is stop and frisk, as this practice has come to be known, a legitimate way for police to identify wrongdoers, or it is an unconstitutional form of racial profiling in which people of color are singled out as "suspicious"? 

These questions have been hotly debated in the news over the past year as a series of lawsuits in New York have challenged stop and frisk. These cases have implications for people all over the country, as the use of stop and frisk has spread to police forces in other American cities. 

The practice commonly called "stop and frisk" is known in law enforcement circles as a "Terry Stop." This name comes from an influential 1968 Supreme Court ruling, Terry v. Ohio, which established the legal precedent for the tactic. In 1963, John W. Terry was arrested in Cleveland and charged with possession of a concealed weapon after a police officer, acting on a suspicion that Terry was planning to commit a robbery, detained him and patted him down. Terry and his lawyers claimed that his constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated because police did not have a warrant for the search. In 1968, the case reached the Supreme Court of the United States. The court ruled that police officers do not need a warrant to conduct a search of an individual; rather, the officers need only a "reasonable suspicion" of wrongdoing. 

In an August 13, 2013, article for the American Prospect, political scientist Scott Lemieux argued that the Supreme Court decision could have dangerous implications: 

In theory, this seems like a reasonable compromise. But applying the standard in practice is fraught with potential dangers. Chief Justice Warren warned that "in determining whether the officer acted reasonably in such circumstances, due weight must be given not to his inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or 'hunch.'" But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that vague hunches are in fact responsible for many stop and frisk searches. As Justice William O. Douglas warned in his dissent, without ongoing vigilance, it's easy for the stop and frisk regime to devolve into a norm where "the police can pick [someone] up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib. 

In the years following the ruling, police around the country employed the tactic. However, it was not until the early 2000s that stop and frisk was put to systematic use by a number of urban police departments. Beginning in 2002, under the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the city's police department drastically increased the number of stop and frisks it executed. According to NYPD statistics, police stopped New Yorkers 97,296 times that year. This number increased steadily, reaching a record 685,724 stops in 2011. Following the lead set by the NYPD, police departments in major American cities including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago have adopted similar tactics.

While proponents of stop and frisk contend that it plays an important role in reducing crime—particularly violent crimes—the policy is extremely controversial, with opponents criticizing stop and frisk on several fronts. (These arguments are explored in the next reading.) 

The debate has played out in a series of court cases. On August 12, 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD's use of the tactic is unconstitutional and that significant changes to the policy are required. Following an appeal by the Bloomberg administration, however, Judge Scheindlin's orders were blocked by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. With the ruling held up in court, the debate over stop and frisk roils on.

For Discussion: 

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. According to the reading, what is a "stop and frisk"? 
  3. What was the Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio? What legal precedent did it set? 
  4. In his dissenting opinion on the Terry case, Justice William O. Douglas warned of the potentials for abuse the stop and frisk presented. What dangers did he identify?
  5. Can you think of any other potential problems with the practice of stop and frisk? Do you think the "reasonable suspicion" of a police officer is firm enough basis from which to conduct a search of an individual on the street?


Student Reading 2
Stop and Frisk: Does It Work? Is It Racist? Is It Constitutional?

The increasing use of stop and frisk over the past decade has raised a number of critical questions: Does the practice work? Is it racist? Is it constitutional? 

Proponents of stop and frisk argue that it profoundly reduces the incidence of violent crimes. Critics dispute this claim. They also contend that stop and frisk represents a form of racial profiling, disproportionately targeting blacks and Latinos. 

Defenders of stop and frisk often note that the policy reduces crime in the cities where it is widely used. In particular, they argue, it is effective in reducing violent crimes, including murder, attempted murder, assault, and rape. By stopping individuals based on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, police are often able to stop crimes before they happen. In a July 22, 2013, opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the practice, contending that it has prevented thousands of murders over the past 11 years: 

Since 2002, the New York Police Department has taken tens of thousands of weapons off the street through proactive policing strategies. The effect this has had on the murder rate is staggering. In the 11 years before Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, there were 13,212 murders in New York City. During the 11 years of his administration, there have been 5,849. That's 7,383 lives saved—and if history is a guide, they are largely the lives of young men of color.

So far this year, murders are down 29% from the 50-year low achieved in 2012, and we've seen the fewest shootings in two decades.

Critics dispute such statistics by arguing that correlation does not equal causation—that is, the drop in murders has not necessarily resulted from the expansion of stop and frisk. In fact, studies show that stop and frisk has had little appreciable impact in reducing crime. Washington Post blogger Dylan Matthews summarized several of these studies in an August 13, 2013 post: 

"Anyone who says we know this is bringing the crime rate down is really making it up," [Columbia Law School Professor Jeffery] Fagan says. Others wouldn't put it that harshly, but the evidence does seem to suggest that stop and frisk is, at best, ineffective, and, at worst, actively alienates communities with whom the police need to engage.

There have been three studies to date evaluating the effectiveness of stop and frisk. The first, an unpublished paper by NYU's Dennis Smith and SUNY Albany's Robert Purtell, found "statistically significant and negative effects of the lagged stop rates on rates of robbery, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and homicide and no significant effects on rates of assault, rape, or grand larceny," according to a summary here. "They also found evidence of 'declining returns to scale' (i.e., diminishing effects over time) of the effects of police stops on most of the offenses they analyzed but increasing returns to scale for robbery."

The second, by University of Missouri-St Louis's Richard Rosenfeld and Arizona State's Robert Fornango, throws cold water on even Smith and Purtell's modest positive findings on robbery and burglary. They find the stops "show few significant effects of several SQF [stop, question, and frisk] measures on precinct robbery and burglary rates."

What's more, law enforcement data shows that for the thousands of stops that have led to arrests, very few ultimately resulted in court convictions. As Adam Gabbatt reported for The Guardian on November 14, 2013: "New York's controversial stop and frisk policy, hailed by the city's mayor and police chief as crucial in fighting crime, could boast only a 3% conviction rate between 2009 and 2012."  

Civil rights and social justice advocates also criticize stop and frisk on the grounds that it amounts to systematized racial profiling. According to NYPD data, approximately 90 percent of the people who have been stopped since 2002 are non-white, with the vast majority being black and Latino. 

A 2012 report by the Center for Constitutional Rights on the human impacts of stop and frisk argues that the practice erodes community trust of law enforcement and dehumanizes people who experience it. As one interviewee for the study said:

[Stops and frisks] belittle people's self-esteem and character, make them feel less of a citizen and less of a person with rights. I feel that stop and frisk is another tactic to be used against people of color to make them feel like this is what they should expect to happen to them in their lifetime and that this is a normal way of life when it's not, and it's unconstitutional. 

Civil liberties and racial justice activists are not relying on the courts alone to address their grievances with stop and frisk. Groups around the country have organized protests and pressure campaigns to reverse the policy. 

For more information on stop and frisk in New York City, including statistics and advice on what to do if you are stopped by the police, see the New York Civil Liberties website. 

For Discussion: 

  1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
  2. Defenders of stop and frisk contend that it reduces crime. How do critics respond to this claim?
  3. Those opposing stop and frisk contend that it is a racist practice. What is their evidence? Do you think it is persuasive?
  4. What do you think of the argument that stop and frisk erodes community trust in law enforcement?



If students don't know whether stop and frisk is used by the police in their community, ask them to research this question.

After discussing their findings, ask students to write a letter to the mayor of their town or city expressing their opinion about stop and frisk, backed up by evidence.