Reviewing the Rationale for Stop-and-Frisk

A ban on this effective crime-fighting technique would only make life worse for low-income African Americans. This post is part of a debate series on “Is Stop and Frisk Worth It?," an article featured in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine.

Any angler will tell you: “If you want to catch fish, you have to go where the fish are.” The same is true when fishing for street crime.

In the case of crack cocaine, you need to focus on urban, poor, African-American neighborhoods, because trafficking is primarily the work of dealers in those communities. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy, and others agree about the demographics of the crack trade. Indeed, no one seriously disagrees. The only question is how to address the problem.

“How,” not “whether.” If the stop-question-and-frisk technique is effective, then the surest way to discriminate against African Americans is to abandon the use of that approach in drug-infested black-majority neighborhoods. Why? Because 99-plus percent of the residents of those neighborhoods are not involved in drug trafficking. Denying them the benefit of a worthwhile law-enforcement technique would only worsen their plight.

The only question, then, is how to solve the problem, and this requires us to address three important, difficult, and unavoidable questions. They’re important, because they shape the policy debate. They’re difficult, because they involve contentious subjects. And they’re unavoidable, because no one can honestly address this subject without taking a position on them.

1Is this technique useful? Yes. Street cops think so; just ask Big Cat and Gesuelli, the two Newark officers featured in The Atlantic’s April feature story,“Is Stop and Frisk Worth It?” Police administrators think so, as witnessed by the strong endorsements from former NYPD Commissioners William Bratton and Ray Kelly. Criminologists also think so. “Broken Windows,” the 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, formed the basis for today’s preventive street policing. Franklin Zimring, Chair of the Berkeley Criminal Justice Studies Program, analyzed New York City data and concluded in 2012 that the crime reduction correlated positively with the NYPD’s law enforcement strategy, which includes preventive street patrol—not with economic and sociological explanations. Accordingly, there is experiential, theoretical, and possibly empirical support for the technique’s effectiveness.

It is easy to understand why critics discount its benefit for law-abiding black residents. Offenders are arrested, convicted, sentenced, and imprisoned—events that lend themselves to statistics, photographs, and media stories. Crimes that do not occur—and people who do not become victims—are invisible. Yet the lives saved and improved by aggressive street patrol are real, even though they are unidentifiable.

2Is this technique inherently bigoted? No. Cops of all races stop and frisk diverse suspects. Crack trafficking and violent crime are concentrated in minority communities, and, as Zimring has noted, “preventive street policing cannot be made much more colorblind than the demographic patterns of violent crime.” The law also forbids bigotry. A cop may stop and frisk a suspect only if he has a “reasonable suspicion,” based on the facts of each case,  that a suspect is involved in crime or is armed. An offender’s race can help the police identify a known suspect, but his race cannot make him into a suspect. Yes, street cops sometimes make mistakes, but the Supreme Court allowed for those errors by adopting a low threshold for stops and frisks. Reasonable suspicion does not require an officer to be right, or even to be more likely right than wrong, so we should not be surprised if the police often err.

Presented by

Paul Larkin

Paul J. Larkin Jr. is a senior legal-research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a former assistant to the solicitor general at the U.S. Justice Department, and a former special agent with the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal-investigations division.

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