Stop and Frisk: The City of New York, the NYPD, and Racial Profiling

By: Catherine Martinez

Imagine walking home from school, or traveling to your part-time job, or running errands. Imagine going about your business, without a single intention of committing a crime. Imagine just trying to get along and live your daily life. Imagine being approached by a police officer. Imagine being stopped and questioned—you’re not sure why, but suddenly someone is in your face, asking what you’re doing, where you’re going, who you are, seemingly out of nowhere. Imagine being searched—for guns, for contraband, for something—without knowing the reason. Imagine when you find out this doesn’t just happen to you, that this isn’t a unique experience. Imagine when it happens to your friends, your family members, your neighbors. Imagine when it happens to you, again and again. Imagine when you get used to it. Imagine when it’s just another part of life.

The idea of being stopped and searched by the police because of the color of your skin is merely a thought experiment for some. But for others, it is a harsh reality that has become part of daily life in New York City, thanks to a ‘stop and frisk’ policy exercised by the New York Police Department over the last decade, leading up to the current mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to reform the city’s police procedures. The use of stop and frisk policies has historically been praised by New York City officials as part of the battle against crime. Yet, many critics have claimed that it unfairly and unconstitutionally targets people of color–primarily black and Hispanic men–and that, ultimately, it is not even effective when it comes to its goal of crime reduction.[1] Legal challenges to the laws have been made, changing in theory the way the city polices, but the question remains: is it enough?

What is Stop and Frisk?

In order to understand the issue, certain terms must be defined. ‘Stop and frisk’ is often used as a catch-all phrase, implying a singular action or encounter. But it is in fact is made up of two separate elements, each requiring different justifications for their use. On the first element, a ‘stop’, the NYPD’s FAQ page notes: “when a police officer reasonably suspects that a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony, or a Penal Law misdemeanor, the officer is authorized…to stop, question, and possibly frisk that individual.”[2] But a frisk can only be conducted if the officer has reason to believe the person stopped is carrying a weapon, and that that weapon poses a threat to the officer’s safety.[3]

What Is The Foundation And Legal Basis For This Policy?

The initial legal basis for New York’s stop and frisk policy comes from the Supreme Court’s decision in Terry v. Ohio,[4] which centers on the Fourth Amendment. In 1963, a Cleveland Police detective, Martin McFadden, stopped and frisked three men he believed to be acting suspiciously by pacing back and forth in front of a jewelry store. McFadden found a pistol in the overcoat of one of the men, John W. Terry. Terry was arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon.[5] Following the district court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence of the pistol, which effectively determined that the search itself was permissible, Terry appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.[6] Chief Justice Earl Warren affirmed Terry’s conviction. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren ruled that the police officer’s seizure of the pistol was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment and, as such, the evidence was properly admitted against Terry.[7] As a result, the Court set a precedent upon which police could justify their policies for stopping and frisking citizens.[8]

These policies were further bolstered in 1971 when the New York Criminal Procedure Law 140.50 went into effect. This law establishes that:

1) “a police officer may stop a person in a public place…when he reasonably suspects that such person is committing, has committed, or is about to commit either (a) a felony or (b) a misdemeanor defined in the penal law” and;

2) if an officer “reasonably suspects that he is in danger of physical injury, he may search such person for a deadly weapon or any instrument, article or substance readily capable of causing serious physical injury.”[9]

This is the law that established definitions for the individual “stop” and “frisk” elements of an encounter between a citizen and a police officer. Along with Terry, this law gave NYPD officers a firm legal basis for the department’s stop and frisk policies.

So What’s the Problem?

There are three major types of objections to New York City’s stop and frisk policy: objections that question the policy’s constitutionality, its effectiveness, or its tendency toward racial profiling. These types of objections are neither concrete nor are they separate; rather, they often crossover or contain elements of each other. For instance, objections to the policy due to its threat of racial profiling rely not only the idea that racial profiling is morally wrong but also maintain that it is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that all citizens must be treated equally under the law.[10] Moreover, the data that supports the objection that stop and frisk is ineffective also demonstrates that minority demographics are unfairly and disproportionately targeted by ‘stop and frisk’ policies. Each of these objections to the NYPD’s ‘stop and frisk’ policies have been raised in the legal arena as a way to challenge and attempt to stop their use.

What Are the Numbers?

Records of ‘stop and frisk’ activity have only been publicly available since 2003. That is a result of Daniels. v. City of New York, which requires the NYPD to audit officers who use the ‘stop and frisk’ policy in order to determine whether the stops were based on reasonable suspicion and whether or not they were being documented correctly.[11] A study by Richard Rosenfeld and Robert Fornango argues that these records likely underreport the number of stops and are possibly incomplete.[12] But, even then, according to the study, the rate of documented police stops in the city tripled between 2003 and 2010.[13]

Over this same period of time, crime rates within the city were falling, with burglary rates halving and robbery rates dropping by almost twice as much. But correlation is not necessarily causation. In each year, 82 to 90% of the individuals stopped pursuant to ‘stop and frisk’ policies were innocent.[14] During 2003 to 2010, according to Rosenfeld and Fornango, only 6.6% of stops resulted in an arrest.[15] Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration (2002 to 2013), close to 90% of stops did not result in an arrest or a summons, which can be interpreted as an indicator of the innocence on the part of those stopped.[16]

Ultimately, the study by Rosenfeld and Fornango, and an analysis of the following years (2011–2013), have shown “few significant effects of several “stop, question, and frisk” measures on precinct robbery and burglary rates.”[17] Regardless, NYPD Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has argued repeatedly that “No question about it, violent crime will go up” without the policy and that the purpose of the policy is to “save lives.”[18] However, despite his insistence that stop and frisk is integral to getting weapons off the streets, the data does not support this claim. In 2011, 55.7% of people stopped were also frisked, which requires the officer reasonably suspects possession of a weapon posing a danger to the officer’s safety. But in 2011, a weapon was found only 1.9% of the time.[19]

Essentially, the effectiveness of stop and frisk has yet to be proven, and the data suggests it is not effective at all. Some proponents of the policy argue that violent crimes have fallen 29% in the city from 2001 to 2010, but other large cities within the country have experienced similar drops in crime without these kinds of policies. For instance, there has been as a 59% drop in crime in Los Angeles, a 56% drop in New Orleans, 49% in Dallas, and 37% in Baltimore.[20] The number of victims of gunfire in 2002 was 1,892, and this number has remained largely unchanged with 1,821 victims in 2011.[21] Despite the insistence that ‘stop and frisk’ has an effect on crime, the data seems to indicate otherwise. Although crime rates have decreased, it has yet to be linked to ‘stop and frisk’ policies by the NYPD, and the ‘stop and frisk’ instances themselves do not appear to lead to more arrests or convictions.

So What About Racial Profiling?

The American Civil Liberties Union defines racial profiling as “the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual’s race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.”[22] Critics of the stop and frisk policy argue that it unfairly and disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos in New York and that this violates their constitutional rights. Various markers have been used to determine whether or not blacks and Latinos are unfairly targeted by the policy. Making up only 4.7% of the city’s population, black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6% of all stops in 2011, even though 90% of those stopped were innocent.[23] Moreover, in the first quarter of 2012, 87% of the people stopped by the NYPD were black or Latino, even though blacks and Latinos make up only 54% of the city’s population.[24] According to a report from the office of Bill de Blasio, former Public Advocate for the City of New York and now the current mayor, in 2012, stops of whites, as opposed to blacks or Latinos, were “more likely to result in weapons or contraband recovery.”[25]

The Center for Constitutional Rights, after analyzing a decade’s worth of data, has found that race is “the main factor determining NYPD stops…even after adjustments are made for other factors, including crime rates, social conditions, and allocations of police resources in various neighborhoods.”[26] This finding led to the landmark case, Floyd v. City of New York.[27]

Floyd v. City of New York

In this class action lawsuit, the plaintiff asserted that the City of New York and the NYPD, through their stop and frisk policies, violated both the Fourth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[28] Professor Jeffrey Fagan at Columbia University, testifying for the plaintiff, argued that 40% of all stops were “either illegal or of questionable legality.” Additionally, Fagan found that NYPD officers cited their presence in a “high crime area” as an “additional circumstance” for a stop, “even in precincts with lower than average crime rates.” Fagan also determined that black and Latino suspects were more likely to have force used against them than white suspects.[29]

On August 12, 2013, judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD had violated the constitutional rights of black and Hispanic New Yorkers. She found that the NYPD, based on the data of the past decade, likely targeted blacks for stops “based on a lesser degree of objectively founded suspicion than whites.”[30] She also held that the City “acted with deliberate indifference towards the NYPD’s practice of making unconstitutional stops and conducting unconstitutional frisks,” and “adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling…[resulting] in the disproportionate and discriminatory stopping of blacks and Hispanics in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.[31]

Judge Scheindlin called for a number of reforms to the NYPD’s policies, including a requirement that officers in certain precincts wear body cameras to record encounters and a “joint remedial process” to bring together the public and the NYPD on how to modify stop and frisk policies.[32] Mayor Bloomberg responded, arguing that the City would appeal the decision, that the judge was biased against the NYPD, and that she “did not understand how policing works.”[33] However, his successor, Mayor de Blasio announced on January 30, 2014, that the city would drop its appeal of the ruling and instead implement reforms to change policing procedures.[34]

Other Problems?

The stop and frisk policies also have negative implications for the city of New York as a whole. A study done by the state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman found that the policy only had a 3% conviction rate from 2009 to 2012, and that this has led to a “sharp uptick” in legal costs for the city.[35] Other studies indicate that the policy may be harming the NYPD’s relationship with the very people they’re supposed to protect. A study from the Vera Institute of Justice interviewed 500 men and women between the ages of 18 and 25 in highly patrolled New York neighborhoods who said they had been stopped at least once. The study found that an individual was 8% less likely to report a violent crime for each additional time they were stopped by the police. 76% of those interviewed said they would not report someone they knew for a crime and 59% said they would not report a violent crime even if they were the victim of said crime. 88% of the people in the study said that the residents in their neighborhood did not trust the police.[36] Many of those interviewed had been stopped not once, but several times. While there are of course flaws with a study based on interviews, the study does problematize the question of whether or not the policies are really serving the community—or if they might be making it worse.[37] These issues advance the possibility of unintended consequences of the stop and frisk policies that might actually make it more difficult for the NYPD to operate effectively.

It remains to be seen exactly what will happen with regards to stop and frisk within the City of New York, as well as with similar policies in other cities. Certainly, Judge Scheindlin’s decision sets a precedent for future cases, but the historical tension between minority communities and the police in any city will disappear any time soon. The balance between the desire to stop crime and to protect people’s civil liberties is difficult to find, and Floyd certainly will not be the last challenge faced by cities and police in their efforts to promote safety while also protecting individual constitutional rights.


  1. Joseph Goldstein, Judge Rejects New York’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy, NY Times (Aug. 12, 2013), online at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/13/nyregion/stop-and-frisk-practice-violated-rights-judge-rules.html.  ↩

  2. New York Police Department, Frequently Asked Questions (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/faq/faq_police.shtml.  ↩

  3. New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop-and-Frisk Report 2011 (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://www.nyclu.org/files/publications/NYCLU_2011_Stop-and-Frisk_Report.pdf.  ↩

  4. 392 US 1 (1968).  ↩

  5. Id. at 5–8.  ↩

  6. American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968) (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://www.acluohio.org/cases/terry-v-ohio.  ↩

  7. 392 US at 30–31.  ↩

  8. WNYC Newsroom, Timeline: The City’s Use of Stop-and-Frisk (May 29, 2012), online at http://www.wnyc.org/story/212932-timeline-citys-use-stop-and-frisk/.  ↩

  9. NY Crim. Pro. § 140.50.  ↩

  10. US Const Amend. XIV.  ↩

  11. Center for Constitutional Rights, Daniels, et al. v. the City of New York (last visited Mar. 27, 2014), online at http://ccrjustice.org/ourcases/past-cases/daniels,-et-al.-v.-city-new-york.  ↩

  12. Rosenfeld, Richard & Robert Fornango, The Impact of Police Stops on Precinct Robbery and Burglary Rates in New York City, 2003–2010, 31 Just. Q. 96 (2014).  ↩

  13. Id. at 98.  ↩

  14. New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop-and-Frisk Data (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://www.nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data.  ↩

  15. Rosenfeld & Fornango, 31 Just. Q at 101.  ↩

  16. Office of Public Advocate for the City of New York, Stop and Frisk and the Urgent Need for Meaningful Reform (2013), online at http://advocate.nyc.gov/sites/advocate.nyc.gov/files/DeBlasioStopFriskReform.pdf.  ↩

  17. Rosenfeld & Fornango, 31 Just. Q. at 116.  ↩

  18. Dylan Matthews, Ray Kelly Says Stop & Frisk Saves Lives. There’s No Good Evidence For That, Wash. Post (Aug. 20, 2013), online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/20/ray-kelly-says-stop-frisk-saves-lives-theres-no-good-evidence-for-that/.  ↩

  19. New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop-and-Frisk Report 2011 (cited in note 3).  ↩

  20. New York Civil Liberties Union. Stop and Frisk Facts (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://www.nyclu.org/node/1598.  ↩

  21. Id.  ↩

  22. American Civil Liberties Union. Racial Profiling: Definition (Nov. 23, 2005), online at https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/racial-profiling-definition.  ↩

  23. New York Civil Liberties Union, Stop-and-Frisk Report 2011 (cited in note 3).  ↩

  24. Darius Charney, The NYPD’s Criminal Stop-and-Frisk Record, Guardian (May 15, 2012), online at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/may/15/nypd-criminal-stop-and-frisk-record.  ↩

  25. Office of Public Advocate for the City of New York, Stop and Frisk and the Urgent Need for Meaningful Reform (cited in note 16).  ↩

  26. Center for Constitutional Rights, 2012 Stop and Frisk Statistics (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://ccrjustice.org/floyd-trial-presskit.html#tabs1-stats.  ↩

  27. Slip op., No. 08 Civ. 1034 (SAS) (SDNY Aug. 12, 2013).  ↩

  28. New York Times, On the Stop-and-Frisk Decision: Floyd v. City of New York (Aug. 12, 2013), online at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/08/12/nyregion/stop-and-frisk-decision.html.  ↩

  29. Center for Constitutional Rights, Stop-and-Frisk: Fagan Report Summary (last visited Mar. 9, 2014), online at http://ccrjustice.org/files/Fagan%20Report%20Summary%20Final.pdf.  ↩

  30. Floyd, slip. op. at 9.  ↩

  31. Id. at 13.  ↩

  32. Goldstein, Judge Rejects New York’s Stop-and-Frisk Policy (cited in note 1).  ↩

  33. Id.  ↩

  34. Ray Sanchez, Haley Draznin, & Steven Kastenbaum, New York Drops Appeal of Controversial Stop-and-Frisk Ruling, CNN (Jan. 30, 2014), online at http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/30/us/new-york-drops-stop-frisk-appeal/.  ↩

  35. Adam Gabbatt, Stop-and-frisk: Only 3% of 2.4m Stops Result in Conviction, Report Finds, Guardian (Nov. 14, 2013), online at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/14/stop-and-frisk-new-york-conviction-rate.  ↩

  36. Erin Durkin, Study Find Stop-and-Frisk Leads to Mistrust of Cops, Unwillingness to Cooperate with Police, NY Daily News (Sep. 19, 2013), online at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/stop-and-frisk-leads-mistrust-cops-study-article-1.1460528.  ↩

  37. Id.  ↩