Stop and Frisk Takes Center Stage at First Debate

A back-and-forth about controversial "stop and frisk" law enforcement policies dominated part of the first presidential debate of 2016.

Published Sep 27, 2016

Image Via ABC

Candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took part in the first of three presidential debates on 26 September 2016, debating topics such as ISIS, the economy, and a controversial law enforcement policy known as "stop and frisk."

Moderator Lester Holt posed a question to both candidates about America's racial divide, ushering in an exchange between the candidates on a topic of national interest — the constitutionality and efficacy of stop and frisk policing:

The share of Americans who say race relations are bad in this country is the highest it's been in decades, much of it amplified by shootings of African-Americans by police, as we've seen recently in Charlotte and Tulsa. Race has been a big issue in this campaign, and one of you is going to have to bridge a very wide and bitter gap.

Trump weighed in with his campaign's oft-cited "law and order" talking point, asserting that a controversial "stop and frisk" policy used in New York City would ameliorate racial tensions in high-crime cities and neighborhoods:

We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot. In Chicago, they've had thousands of shootings, thousands since January 1st. Thousands of shootings. And I'm saying, where is this? Is this a war-torn country? What are we doing? And we have to stop the violence. We have to bring back law and order.

... Now, whether or not in a place like Chicago you do stop and frisk, which worked very well, Mayor Giuliani is here, worked very well in New York. It brought the crime rate way down. But you take the gun away from criminals that shouldn't be having it. We have gangs roaming the street. And in many cases, they're illegally here, illegal immigrants. And they have guns. And they shoot people. And we have to be very strong. And we have to be very vigilant.

Trump's claim attracted a significant amount of attention, especially from those who contend the policy is ineffective and has a demonstrated adverse effect the relationship between police and their communities:

No research has ever proven the effectiveness of New York City’s stop-and-frisk regime, and the small number of arrests, summonses, and guns recovered demonstrates that the practice is ineffective. Crime data also do not support the claim that New York City is safer because of the practice. While violent crimes fell 29 percent in New York City from 2001 to 2010, other large cities experienced larger violent crime declines without relying on stop and frisk abuses: 59 percent in Los Angeles, 56 percent in New Orleans, 49 percent in Dallas, and 37 percent in Baltimore.

Stop-and-Frisk abuses corrode trust between the police and communities, which makes everyone less safe. Don’t believe us? Then listen to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly in 2000: “[A] large reservoir of good will was under construction when I left the Police Department in 1994. It was called community policing. But it was quickly abandoned for tough-sounding rhetoric and dubious stop-and-frisk tactics that sowed new seeds of community mistrust.”

Trump primarily referenced the use of stop and frisk in New York City, a policy that proliferated under the administration of former mayor Rudy Giuliani:

Under stop-and-frisk, officers stop, question and search people for contraband. The approach has been used in major cities such as New York City and Baltimore, but in many cases the practice has ended or been scaled back over concerns about racial profiling.

In New York City, the tactic began in the early 2000s and quickly expanded in scope. At its peak in 2011, police stopped New Yorkers more than 685,000 times, according to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union; 88% of those stops yielded no contraband. Nearly 90% of those stopped that year were black or Latino.

Data show time and again that stop and frisk policing universally has a disproportionate impact on black and Latino people, with "unintended consequences [that] are often a reduction in perceptions of police fairness, legitimacy, and effectiveness" [PDF]:

For example, in 2011, when stop-and-frisk activity reached an all-time high in New York, police stopped 685,724 people, according to police data analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union. A full 53 percent were black, 34 percent were Latino and 9 percent were white. More than half were ages 14 to 24 years old.

At the conclusion of Trump's response, Holt stated that stop and frisk in New York "was ruled unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men." Trump disputed the claim:

No, you're wrong. It went before a judge, who was a very against-police judge. It was taken away from her. And our mayor, our new mayor, refused to go forward with the case. They would have won an appeal. If you look at it, throughout the country, there are many places where it's allowed.

Both Holt and Trump were referencing a 12 August 2013 ruling by Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Federal District Court, Manhattan. In Floyd v. City of New York, Judge Scheindlin affirmed in the decision's conclusion that:

For the foregoing reasons, the City is liable for the violation of plaintiffs' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In a separate opinion, I will order remedies, including immediate changes to the NYPD's policies, a joint-remedial process to consider further reforms, and the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee compliance with the remedies ordered in this case. I conclude with a particularly apt quote: "The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and ... neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It's like burning down a house to rid it of mice.

Trump maintained the case "was taken away from" Judge Scheindlin, and in October 2013 [PDF] the case was indeed reassigned to a new judge. That reassignment was predicated in part by "[Scheindlin's] statements to the media and the resulting stories published while a decision on the merits was pending and while public interest in the outcome of the litigation was high, [which] might cause a reasonable observer to question her impartiality." But the City of New York ultimately ceased any efforts on the part of police or unions to further appeal the decision in October 2014 and entered into a "joint remedial process" with respect to policing methods.

Trump asserted that the practice was necessary to take guns off the streets, another factually contentious aspect of the stop and frisk debate. As the practice was weighed against the Constitution in court, parties with interest (such as civil liberties advocacy groups and police unions) released data about the value of stop and frisk policies in policing policy nationwide:

Beginning in 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests to get the NYPD’s data on its stop-and-frisk encounters and what was found. In 2012, the NYPD made more than 532,000 stops, each of which could progress to a frisk or to a full search. The police found guns only 715 times. In other words, guns were found during 0.1 percent of stops.

The NYCLU data set shows that 23 percent of all stops and searches were prompted by concerns about a possible weapon. The police did find guns more often in these cases (36 of every 10,000 weapon-related stops compared with seven of every 10,000 non-weapon-related stops). However, this still seems like a low success rate, and it may be skewed. Police officers write up their reasons for a stop afterward and can retroactively claim gun-related causes after finding the weapon, even if they weren’t the true reason for the stop.

The volume of stops meant that the NYPD wound up finding hundreds of guns, even though the chances of finding one on any particular stop were small. Overall, the guns found through stop-and-frisks accounted for about 18 percent of all 3,928 guns that New York City found and traced through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2012.

The New York Civil Liberties Union created a chart to illustrate the yield of such stops in the years the City sanctioned the practice:

stops vs guns stop frisk

Since the effective cessation of stop and frisk in New York City, researchers have examined whether the controversial tactic truly inhibits crime and violence. As of 2016, little data support its value:

But in any case, what happened in New York undercuts the theory that stop-and-frisk is a necessary tool for reducing crime. New York officials credited a huge drop in crime to aggressive use of stop-and-frisk, though hard data told a different story. In 2013, prior to New York effectively ending stop-and-frisk, David Greenberg of New York University found “no evidence that misdemeanor arrests reduced levels of homicide, robbery, or aggravated assaults.” Since the end of stop-and-frisk, crime has remained at historically low rates or even dropped further. In 2015, murder rebounded slightly from its all-time low in 2013, though the first quarter of 2016 was the lowest on record.

During the presidential debate, NYPD Assistant Commissioner for Communication & Public Information J. Peter Donald tweeted stats about stop and frisk:

The status of stop and frisk policies in New York and elsewhere aligned with assertions made by both Trump and Holt. The policy was indeed ruled unconstitutional in 2013 (the female judge who so ruled was reassigned later that year), and the City ultimately moved away from the practice in 2014 after years of litigation. Trump appeared to be suggesting that widespread use of stop and frisk policing would yield returns in the form of confiscated illegal guns, but the data from New York's years of routine stop and frisk do not bear that claim out. The Republican nominee further asserted that the legal challenge to the constitutionality of stop and frisk would have been defeated had the City proceeded with their appeal, but that opinion remains a speculative one since all involved parties moved on with the intent of implementing reform in 2014. Statistically, the end of stop and frisk does not appear to have worsened crime rates in New York, nor is it clear that the stop and frisk policy in itself ever caused a significant drop in those rates.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

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