Stop and Frisk and Racial Profiling

The killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman exposed a raw nerve left after years of continued prejudice, racial profiling and inequality in criminal justice system.  Racial bias has no place in the courtroom, but, through unchecked police tactics like stop and frisk, it still manages to permeate throughout our system of justice.

They are called “investigatory stops” in courtrooms but are known in the law enforcement community as “stop and frisk” because most of these stops involve pedestrians rather vehicles. This crime prevention tool gained constitutional legitimacy in 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Terry v. Ohio. The Court essentially held that the police may conduct a brief investigatory stop based on less suspicion than is necessary to secure a warrant. They must have what is called “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a person is involved in criminal activity. This suspicion must have a “particularized and objective” basis. In other words, gut hunches or general suspicions are not enough. Courts, however, must pay deference to an officer’s “observations and conclusions” which, based on his/her experience, creates a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, a social debate has emerged that “stop and frisk” has been used to racially profile young black males as likely criminal suspects. President Obama contributed to this debate when he said he had been the subject of racial profiling in various social situations. Last year the Rev. Al Sharpton in a Huffington Post blog called “stop and frisk” the “new racial profiling. The ACLU in New York City pointed out recently that since 2002 there have four million New Yorkers stopped and frisked, nine out of ten of whom were completely innocent. Law enforcement officials credit these investigatory stops for a 29 percent drop in violent crime in the city between 2001 and 2010. But that belies the reality. Other large cities, like Los Angeles (59%), Dallas (49%), New Orleans (56%) and Baltimore (37%), experienced much greater decreases in violent crime without relying upon stop and frisk.

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