Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem.



October 2012

Stop-and-Frisk is Bad Policy

Written by , Posted in Culture & Society, Liberty & Limited Government, The Courts, Criminal Justice & Tort

On Tuesday The Nation released audio recorded by a victim of police harassment and abuse under New York’s Stop and Frisk program. The officers in the recording behaved as brutish thugs lording their power over the populace, instead of servants of public. Listen to the 2 minutes of audio for yourself here, or for an even better look into the issue (which includes the audio) watch this short documentary:

The Nation also provided this description of the encounter:

In the course of the two-minute recording, the officers give no legally valid reason for the stop, use racially charged language and threaten Alvin with violence. Early in the stop, one of the officers asks, “You want me to smack you?” When Alvin asks why he is being threatened with arrest, the other officer responds, “For being a fucking mutt.” Later in the stop, while holding Alvin’s arm behind his back, the first officer says, “Dude, I’m gonna break your fuckin’ arm, then I’m gonna punch you in the fuckin’ face.”

In addition to saying he was going to be arrested for being a “mutt,” the officers also said that he is frequently stopped (he complains in the audio of also being stopped two blocks ago) because of how he looks at the police as they cruise around hunting for people to harass. Is looking at police officers a crime?  I realize this is New York City we’re talking about, so maybe it is. But if so I haven’t gotten that memo.

It would be nice if we could dismiss this as some sort of isolated incident, but it’s likely not. The video includes other officers confirming an attitude among police that is antagonistic toward the populace and dismissive of their rights. There is tremendous pressure on officers to perform these stops, and they are basically told to do so for no other reason than to pad numbers. In encouraging the stops, one police captain even declared, “We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to violate some rights.” Comforting.

The left has long based their opposition to stop-and-frisk primarily on racial concerns, stating that they discriminate against blacks and Latinos. Given the left’s history of crying wolf and race baiting, this has turned many off from their arguments, which I think is unfortunate. The numbers do confirm these groups make up the balk of stops, though it’s hard to determine if that’s because of prejudice or just correlated with the fact that certain demographics are disproportionately represented in poorer and more crime ridden neighborhoods. But it doesn’t matter which it is, as the program would be no more acceptable if it targeted as many or more white people.

The real problem is not the demographics of who is stopped, but the violation of the individual rights of each person – whatever their race – that is stopped and harassed without due cause, and the impact this has on public relations with the police.

While I value order and respect for the law, I see strong arguments for opposing stop and frisk.

The vast majority of those stopped by stop-and-frisk are guilty of no crime. Sure, it catches some people doing bad things, but you can’t ignore the costs of a policy. And I’m not talking fiscal costs. An onerous police state that allowed few freedoms could probably reduce crime tremendously, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Likewise, harassing mostly innocent citizens without cause is not an acceptable cost for catching a few people with illegal guns or drugs. Aside from the fact that it is a violation of privacy rights, it’s also just not a good way to engage in policing.

An effective police force should have generally good relations with the community in which it operates. When citizens lose respect for either the law or law enforcement, it encourages lawlessness and the job of the police is made more difficult. One sure fire way for police to lose the respect of the populace is to repeatedly harass them without cause. Another is to engage in frequent abuses of authority, which leads to another reason stop-and-frisk is a bad policy.

Stop-and-frisk is a numbers game. The bureaucracy wants to show it is “doing something” to stop crime, and large numbers naturally appeal to the typical bureaucratic mentality of quantity over quality. The program, in other words, is designed to make the public think that something is being done, but is not actually all that well designed for doing what it mimics, i.e. the promotion of law and order. Consider stop-and-frisk the TSA checkpoint of policing – mostly theatrics. So heavy pressure is then put on the individual officers to make lots of stops, regardless of whether they have any reason. They respond by making up reasons, rendering the stops an arbitrary use of government power.

Arbitrary power is the very definition of bad government, flies in the face of what our constitution sought to establish, and promotes the very opposite of law and order. The police should be looking for ways to work with law abiding citizens to combat crime in their neighborhoods, not disrespecting them, disregarding their rights, and just generally treating them as enemies.