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“Stop and frisk” practice ethically, morally wrong

By Staff | Aug 16, 2013

Crime can always be lessened, there’s no doubt about that. But crime, regardless of where it takes place, should be lessened by ethical and legal means. And there is nothing legal nor ethical about a “stop and frisk” policy.

On Monday, federal judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that the New York Police Department was violating the constitutional rights (specifically the Fourth and 14th Amendments) of Hispanic and African-Americans with this policy of simply stopping, questioning and searching someone on the basis of “looking suspicious.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Scheindlin called for a pilot program in which officers must be equipped, for one year, with body-worn cameras. After that, an independent monitor will weigh whether cameras reduced unconstitutional stops, and whether the pros outweigh the cons.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (yes the anti-gun, anti-Big Gulp Michael Bloomberg) vowed to appeal the decision, saying the practice has “saved” more Hispanic and African-American lives, especially in high crime areas.

It is true that serious crimes and murder rates in New York are down when compared to twenty years ago. According to a CNN report, in 1990 the serious crime rate in New York was over 500 thousand, and there were over 2,200 murders. In 2011 there were over 100 thousand serious crimes and over 500 murders.

Scheindlin, however, ruled that when compared to the lives of minorities saved, the amount of minorities stopped was utterly disproportionate.

In the same CNN report, 4.4 million people, from 2004 to last year, were stopped, and of that amount in 2011/12, 87% were African-American and Hispanic. And of those stopped, only 12% were actually charged with a crime.

A Washington Post blog released statistics charts, compiled by employees at Mother Jones, that break it down further.

Of the 4.4. million stops, 2.3 million were black, 1.4 million were Hispanic, and 435,000 were white. Both blacks and whites had the same total amount of illicit materials seized, 16,000, and there were 14,000 illicit materials seized from Hispanics.

The same blog also mentions an NYPD-initiated study by the RAND Corporation, which found that black suspects were more likely than white suspects to be stopped and frisked.

I know what you’re thinking, “I live in Pierce County, North Dakota, or some other closely-knit place, why should I care about what happens in New York?” I’m getting to that.

Where was I? Anyway, as any skeptic worth his or her salt knows, and as it should be known, correlation does not equal causation. A decrease in crime rate could be attributed to anything: more people going to prison, more people moving, more people dying, social triggers, environmental triggers, and even the ID, ego and superego.

Law enforcement officers can stop and frisk someone if they have a reasonable cause, one based on specific and articulable facts rather than a hunch. That’s the basis of the Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court decision. For example, if someone’s swerving while driving like a bat out of hell on Highway 2, there’s reason to stop him or her. He or she might be intoxicated and pose a threat to other motorists. But simply “looking suspicious” isn’t a reasonable cause.

Even if the method lessens crime, a law enforcement method that tramples on a person’s constitutional rights, whether that person is black, white, green or blue, is ethically, and morally, wrong, regardless of where it takes place.

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