Stop and frisk: Good intentions gone bad
16th April 2013 · 0 Comments
By Marjorie R. Esman
Much has been written in the last couple of months about the New Orleans Police Department’s (NOPD) Field Interview Practices also known as Stop and Frisk. This paper wrote about the Office of the Independent Police Monitor’s (OIPM) recent investigation of whether NOPD’s stop and frisk procedures meet established legal standards. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has also investigated these practices, seeking to know whether NOPD engaged in racial profiling in its stop and frisk activities.
Both studies put NOPD squarely on the hot seat, yet neither could answer its own question. Both efforts concluded that NOPD’s stop and frisk practices are so flawed that it is impossible to gain enough credible data upon which to make assessments.
The community, the NAACP and the ACLU have responded in varying ways to NOPD’s stop and frisk practices. Unnecessary stops, assertions of bias and racial profiling and the violation of Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable” search and seizure are at the heart of the issue.
About the stop and frisk procedure, it’s important to understand that stop and frisk are, in fact, two separate actions and the performance of one should not necessarily lead to the other. While the reasons that officers choose to stop individuals are many, under the law an officer may search or frisk someone only under very specific conditions. The legal standard, set out in a 1968 Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio, requires the officer to have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is committing, or is about to commit a crime and have a reasonable belief that the person may be armed and presently dangerous. In short, the officer must reasonably believe that the stopped person is actually committing or about to commit a crime and is armed and dangerous. It simply isn’t enough to have a suspicion or a hunch.
The loophole is that searches can be conducted without meeting those criteria if the person first gives “consent.” However, the standards for obtaining consent are lax, and since most people don’t feel comfortable refusing a request by an officer, “consent” is often obtained under duress or pressure.
This problem is not unique to New Orleans. ACLU affiliates and others across the U.S. are engaged with local law enforcement agencies and the courts in an effort to come to terms with this problem. But, unlike other cities that track officers’ activities, NOPD’s inability to provide basic statistical information hamstrings any ability to draw and confirm some important and necessary conclusions. In effect, NOPD’s lack of information renders the conversation mute. For example, while it is appears that African Americans and Hispanics are being stopped in disproportionately higher numbers, NOPD procedures, especially the use of Field Interview Cards—the document used to record the stop—are so lax and arbitrary that the OIPM found it impossible to gain enough credible information to confirm it.
Under current NOPD stop and frisk practices, police appear to engage in bias and profiling and violate individuals’ rights with unnecessary stops. In doing so, they waste their time and the taxpayers’ money, money better spent fighting serious crime. What’s more, study after study indicates that these stops don’t achieve the desired result of lower crime rates and increased public safety; and, they often yield low rates of contraband, weapons, summonses and arrests. In short, they are ineffective and unproductive uses of law enforcement time and resources, and do little or nothing to enhance public safety.
Let’s be clear, law enforcement officers face dangerous and threatening situations every day. They need some flexibility and discretion in how they handle people and situations they deem threatening. Still, everything they do must be in accordance with the law. Every officer must have the appropriate training and continuing education and must be required to know the law. The ACLU of Louisiana agrees with Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson when she says that “the starting point for examining a jurisdiction’s stop and frisk practices must begin with a thorough understanding of the constitutional and legal standards on which those practices must be based.” Her study found that NOPD’s training is inadequate, and therefore officers don’t have enough information about when stops and frisks are legally justified.
NOPD’s stop and frisk problems will require a long and difficult fix. Training, and more training, is the first step. In the meantime, the community’s mistrust in NOPD’s stop and frisk practices is compounded by NOPD’s inability to provide adequate information to determine what the problems are. The people of New Orleans are entitled to a police department that follows the law while protecting public safety. Right now, we’re not sure what we have, and the public mistrust serves to undermine police credibility. It’s time to do better, so that we will all be safer.
This article originally published in the April 15, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.