Explainer: The Stop-and-Frisk Policy

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A federal judge struck down the city's stop-and-frisk policing tactic as unconstitutional on Monday. Here is what you need to know.

What is stop-and-frisk exactly?

It's a limited search. A "stop" is not an arrest, which requires paperwork and a trip to the police station. Instead, it's a brief interference with someone's freedom; if there's no evidence of wrongdoing, the person can go. A stop can lead to an arrest, though, if a police officer finds evidence of a crime (for example, if the person stopped is carrying illegal drugs).

A "frisk" is not a search. It's limited to a pat down of outer clothing. If the officer feels something that might be a weapon, though, they can reach inside the clothing.

How often does this happen in NYC?

Over the past decade, the city has conducted about 5 million stop-and-frisks. The tactic skyrocketed during the Bloomberg administration, going from 97,296 in 2002 up to 685,724 in 2011, when stops were at their peak. The vast majority of residents who have been stopped —  more than 80 percent — have been black or Latino.

In spite of ongoing litigation and political pressure, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have passionately defended the practice, crediting it with helping to drive down crime numbers,  especially homicides, to historic lows.

Isn't this really racial profiling?

The Bloomberg administration asserted that rather than profiling people of color in the city, the practice has saved the lives of minorities who are most often the victims of violent  crime. But during the federal trial, Judge Shira Scheindlin noted that the majority of stops result in officers finding no wrong doing.

"A lot of people are being frisked or searched on suspicion of having a gun and nobody has a gun," she said. Only 0.14 percent of stops have led to police finding guns. "So the point is suspicion turns out to be wrong in most cases."

That sentiment was echoed by some New Yorkers on the street Monday morning. Twenty-five-year old Joseph Isaac, a resident of Queensbridge Houses in Queens, said he’s been stopped and frisked numerous times and often tapes the encounters on his iPad. He agreed with the ruling, but was skeptical it will make a difference on the street. 

“It’s not really going to stop them from stopping and frisking unless you have like federal agents standing right there like you can’t stop people," he said. "There’s always going to be that excuse that you fit the description.”

How long has stopping-and-frisking been going on?

A long time, perhaps since the beginning of police departments.

The first case challenging the way the police conducted stop-and-frisks in the city was filed by attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1999, following the Bronx shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man. The case, Daniel’s v. City of New York, challenged stops made by the NYPD Street Crimes Unit — a case Judge Scheindlin was also supposed to preside over until the city settled it in 2004. The agreement stipulated that the NYPD improve officer training, draft a written policy about conducting legal stops and create a new form in which officers would note the reason their legal grounds or ‘reasonable suspicion’ for the initiating the encounter.

"They were supposed to implement a policy against racial profiling." said attorney Darius Charney. "It’s been on paper for 10 years and hasn’t changed."

Is this constitutional?

Judge Shira Scheindlin said no this week. But the city says that the stop-and-frisk policy — which Bloomberg calls "stop-question-frisk" — is supported by a 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Terry v. Ohio,  that held that a police officer may stop and frisk a suspect on the street if he or she has reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. The court ruled that if the suspect was dangerous, the tactic was not a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

What's next?

The judge has appointed an independent monitor to oversee changes she says NYPD must make. The city is asking for a stay on the changes while they appeal.