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During the recent presidential debate, Republican nominee Donald Trump brought up the police tactic of stopping and frisking a suspect, also known as a Terry stop. The move has become controversial because it allows police officers to temporarily detain someone if the officer has a “reasonable suspicion” – something less than probable cause – that they’re committing or are about to commit a crime. As a result, people of color have been disproportionately targeted by the tactic to such an extent that the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been deemed to have violated the constitutional rights of many of the people in the city.
Nevertheless, Trump claimed that stop and frisk was a good idea. He has even been on record saying that the practice should not be used by individual police departments, but should instead be adopted as a nationwide policy of law enforcement. His main support for this claim is that stop and frisk works to get rid of crime by finding criminals and deterring crime.
Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.
The largest scale use of stop and frisk by a police force was in New York between 2003 and 2012. During these years, police of the NYPD performed stop and frisk an average of 479,254 times per year. Out of these, an average of 422,277 of those stopped and frisked were not charged with a crime – they were completely innocent when the police detained them.
That means that 88% of the time, a stop and frisk found no evidence of a crime, and did nothing but annoy and humiliate an innocent bystander.
One of the most common arguments for using stop and frisk is that it stops crime before it happens. If criminals know that they can be stopped by police at almost any time, they’re less likely to leave their house to commit a crime.
But, according to The Washington Post, crime stats show that the NYPD’s increased use of stop and frisk has “almost no correlation” with the city’s fall in violent crimes and murders. These crimes had a steep decline well before stop and frisk was implemented, and stayed at the same levels during stop and frisk’s heyday in the city. Even gun crimes – which stop and frisk advocates like Trump point to, specifically, because the tactic is aimed at finding weapons – stayed at about the same levels throughout NYPD’s use of stop and frisk. In fact, since stop and frisk was phased out by the NYPD, gun crimes have shown a distinct downward trend.
Stop and frisk might seem like a good idea. However, letting police detain suspects for little reason at all can easily infringe on the constitutional rights of huge swaths of people. If the tactic was a good way of finding criminals or deterring crime, it might be worthwhile. But if the statistics from New York’s stop and frisk policy shows anything, it’s that stop and frisk does almost nothing.
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