A cop’s right to stop, question, and frisk is constitutionally protected. But the vital crime-fighting tool has become a flashpoint in the mayor’s race, with candidates stumbling on the issue, and critics charging the practice unfairly targets blacks and Latinos.
Law enforcement is a thankless and contentious business. Criminals work around the clock to imperil others, while cops place their lives on the line to protect the victims. But its success depends on striking the right balance between an officer’s gut feeling and a suspect’s presumed innocence.
In the late 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court put to bed the potentially-exploitive gray area in between, with its landmark ruling in Terry vs. Ohio. The case involved a routine beat patrol by Cleveland Police Department Det. Martin McFadden, who found a revolver and bullets on Richard Chilton and John Terry, after patting them down on a suspicion they were casing a store with an accomplice for a stick-up. The court ruled that McFadden’s search was reasonable.
Cop-community relations have always been a double-edged sword, their favorable outcome depending on the good citizenship of both parties. Yet the prospect of federal monitors babysitting cops — or regulations that ridiculously limit the description of suspects to their clothing — deflates a legal system that rests on the morale of its enforcers.
Stop-and-frisk is a beef that transcends the ocean.
Great Britain’s civil libertarians have wrestled with the program — and lost. “Suspected person” laws, commonly known as “sus laws,” once allowed bobbies to stop, search, and arrest folk suspected of violating the Vagrancy Act of 1824. But the practice was tossed out in the 1980s, after race riots erupted in response to police allegedly targeting black Brits. The result? Sus laws were reinstated in 2011, as part of Britain’s anti-terror campaign, and to curb the nation’s violent crime record — the worst of any country in the European Union.
Stop-and-frisk has played its part in keeping New Yorkers safe. Congressional Quarterly named the Big Apple the third-safest city in America, in its 2013 crime-rate survey of 33 cities with populations of 500,000 or more. Credit the hard-won achievement to the dedication of the majority of NYPD’s Finest, who selflessly patrol historically rough areas — like Brownsville, Gotham’s murder capital.
If stop-and-frisk targets minorities disproportionately, it is not completely without cause.
Crime rates are generally higher in more urbanized areas, and the young, male, and minority residents of the nation’s central cities contribute disproportionately to the growing prison population, states the Brookings Institution.
A lawful nation is a just nation. Mayoral candidates should keep that in mind, before jumping the gun on a program that — while not infallible — is an important weapon in NYPD’s crime-prevention arsenal.