Over a Decade Later, Still Learning the Lessons of Stop-and-Frisk

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During the 2000-01 school year, I taught a course about stop-and-frisk and the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution at City-As-School High School in New York City. I developed the course because I had overheard so many male students complaining about constantly being harassed by the police for no reason.

Their anger was an opportunity to quickly engage them. I asked Bob Lubetsky, the principal, to barge into the room before the class had started and crudely and rudely subject me to a stop-and-frisk.

His menacing gestures and nasty and profane tone evidenced a complete disrespect for me. As he left I looked up to see if the students were laughing at these two middle-aged white guys; instead I was confronted with a sea of waving hands.

I decided to call on every student, and their stories poured out. I especially remember one boy telling the class that he had been humiliated in front of his home. The cop ended the confrontation — what I would call a violation of the student’s constitutional rights — by saying: “You may live here, but I own these streets; I’m going to be watching you. Got it?”

From this beginning, the students learned that the Fourth Amendment protected individuals not from all searches, but from “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

We spent a couple of classes talking about the meaning of “unreasonable.” I explained that the United States Supreme Court had ruled that the police could conduct a stop-and-frisk only if they had a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime had been committed or was being committed.

I used one of the stories from the first class, when a student described getting searched when he was standing on the street with some friends who were smoking a joint. I told the class that even though he wasn’t smoking, the police probably had reasonable suspicion to believe that he was.

The class also learned about the history of the enactment of the Fourth Amendment. It had been included in the Bill of Rights because Americans so resented the occupying British army and royal officials and their use of general writs of assistance to search homes and seize goods. Some students said that they felt like the N.Y.P.D. was an occupying army.

The students’ anger grew, and so did their interest. They demanded to learn who was responsible and what could be done to stop what they saw as an abuse of their rights.

Some students knew that the police were under the authority of the police commissioner and, ultimately, the mayor at the time, Rudolph W. Giuliani. This seamlessly led to a discussion about our system of government.

I handed out a chart showing the three branches of government and the three levels of government. Some students quickly pointed out that Mr. Giuliani was the head of the executive branch of the local or New York City government.

I asked the students if Mr. Giuliani was the king of New York City and what he said goes, or were there checks and balances on his power? I then handed out newspaper articles about challenges to the mayor’s policy based on the Fourth Amendment: a court case in federal court, a United States Department of Justice investigation, and an investigation by then-New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer that found that 83 percent of the people stopped were black or Latino, yet they made up only 50 percent of the population.

Mr. Spitzer also found that the reasonable suspicion cited by the police often didn’t hold up under scrutiny.

One student reminded the class that an election was coming in November 2001 and that within a year the city would have a new mayor and a new police commissioner. I stated that the days of more than 100,000 stop-and-frisks every year may be coming to an end.

I said that it was hard to imagine that a new mayor would violate the rights of its citizens, at least to the degree that Mr. Giuliani had. The students were more skeptical.

Oh, how right the students were and how wrong their teacher was.

In 2011, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, using quotas, compelled police officers to make 684,330 stop-and-frisks. That’s 1,874 stops each and every day.

Of those stopped, only around 10 percent were arrested or issued a summons. Some of those cases were undoubtedly dismissed. And 87 percent of those stopped were black or Latino.

The Bloomberg administration has tried to justify its policy by citing the number of guns that have been seized. But the media reported that in 2003, 604 guns were seized during the course of 160,851 stop-and-frisks; in 2011, 780 guns were seized through 685,724 stops. That is the result after violating the constitutional rights of a half a million young minority men; a federal judge could soon rule in a pending case that the procedure, as currently implemented, is unconstitutional.

The mayor has also tried to justify the racial profiling by creating a straw man: “If we stopped people based on census numbers, we would stop many fewer criminals.”

I would like to believe that my students would respond that the police can legally stop and frisk people only when the police have reasonable suspicion.

There will be a protest parade this Sunday on Fifth Avenue. I’m confident that some of my former students will be there protesting the undeserved arrest records that too many young minority men are saddled with, as well as the deep alienation that they feel when the New York City Police Department equates being young and minority with reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed.