Law-enforcement officers in the U.S. are authorized to briefly detain a person upon reasonable suspicion of his or her involvement in a crime, even if there not yet any apparent probable cause to arrest. To justify such a stop, an officer must be able to cite “specific and articulable facts” that would indicate to a reasonable person that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed. If the officer has reasonable cause to think that the suspect is in possession of a weapon that could pose a threat to the officer or to other civilians, he may conduct a weapon-search by frisking the suspect’s outer garments. If the officer discovers contraband in the course of such a frisk, he may seize it, but only if the contraband's identity is immediately apparent.
Many civil-rights activists have charged that stop-and-frisk practices are racist because they target nonwhite minorities in disproportionate numbers. For example, in 2011 in New York City, African Americans, who constituted 23% of the city’s population, were fully 53% of all police-stop subjects. By contrast, whites were 35% of the city's population but only 9% of stop subjects.
These disparities, however, were not due to racism, but to the fact that the black crime rate in New York dwarfs the white crime rate. According to the victims of, and witnesses to, crimes committed in New York City during 2011, blacks were responsible for 66% of all violent crimes, including approximately 70% of all robberies and 80% of all shootings. Blacks and Hispanics, combined, accounted for fully 98% of all shootings in the city.
Whites, by contrast, were responsible for only 5% of New York's violent crimes, and scarcely 1% of its civilian shootings. Manhattan Institute Fellow Heather Mac Donald explains the significance of these numbers:
"Such disparities mean that the police can’t deploy their resources where people most need protection from violence—in minority neighborhoods—without producing racially disproportionate stops. Brownsville, Brooklyn is a particular target of the anti-police advocates for its stop rate. Why is there more enforcement activity there? Because that’s where thugs are killing people. The per-capita shooting rate in Brownsville is 81 times higher than in nearby Bay Ridge."
In 2011, New York City police stopped and questioned a total of 685,000 civilians. A high percentage of those stops were made because the suspect appeared to be casing a victim or a property, or acting as a lookout for an accomplice. Notably, the same proportion of police stops of blacks and whites -- 12 percent -- resulted in a summons or an arrest, suggesting that the officers used a consistent, race-neutral standard of behavioral indicators to inform their decisions vis a vis civilian stops. Many critics of the police have claimed, however, that a 12% arrest-or-summons rate is too low to justify the continued practice of police stops. Heather Mac Donald addresses their objections:
"[J]ust because someone isn’t arrested or summonsed doesn’t mean that the stop didn’t deter a crime. Someone who was casing a victim for a robbery and stopped for that suspicious behavior may not have evidence of a crime on him to justify an arrest, but that stop in all likelihood prevented someone else from being victimized. To be sure, thousands of innocent New Yorkers have been questioned by the police. Even though such stops may have been justified given the information the officer had at the time, they’re still humiliating and infuriating experiences. But if the trade-off is an increased risk of getting stopped in a high-crime neighborhood versus an increased risk of getting shot there, most people would choose the former. New York’s proactive policing, which seeks to stop crime before it happens, has brought the longest, steepest crime drop in recorded history. No other city comes close."
In 2013, Judge Shira Scheindlin presided over the Floyd v. City of New York civil-rights lawsuit which the Center for Constitutional Rights filed as a challenge to the stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD. In a historic decision (rendered on August 12), Scheindlin ruled that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. “In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective,” she said, “[city officials] have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of [police] targeting 'the right people' is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”
In response to Judge Scheindlin's ruling, Heather Mac Donald wrote the following:
The key moment of Scheindlin’s ruling comes with her discussion of the stops performed by one of the NYPD’s most hard-working members.
During a three-month period of 2009, the high-crime Fort Greene area of Brooklyn had been experiencing a spate of robberies, burglaries and gun violence. The robbery victims described their assailants as four to five black males between the ages of 14 to 19; the burglary victims reported the suspect as a Hispanic male between 5’8’’ and 5’9’’, in his 30s; and the shooting suspect was described as a black male in his 20s.
During that same period, Officer Edgar Gonzalez of Brooklyn’s 88th Precinct conducted 134 stops, 128 of which had black or Hispanic subjects. That stop ratio is consistent not only with the specific crime patterns then afflicting Fort Greene but also with the overall rate of crime in Gonzalez’s precinct. Blacks and Hispanics commit nearly 99 percent of all violent crime in the 88th Precinct and over 93 percent of all crime.
Scheindlin, however, apparently believes that population ratios are the proper benchmark for measuring the legality of stop activity. She points out that Gonzalez’s racial stop rate “far exceeds the percentage of blacks and Hispanics in the local population (60 percent).”
In other words, though whites and Asians commit less than 1 percent of violent crime in the 88th Precinct and less than 6 percent of all crime, according to Scheindlin 40 percent of all stops should be of whites and Asians, to match their representation in the local population.