Forget Drones, Focus on Stop-and-Frisk Instead

Conservatives may have set their sights on the Obama administration’s drone program as proof our civil liberties have all but evaporated, but if they truly cared about the expanding police and surveillance state, they’d be taking New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to task over the city’s deeply-problematic stop-and-frisk program. Thankfully a federal court may instead.

Last week, a federal judge granted class-action status to a lawsuit challenging the practice of the New York Police Department to “stop and frisk” anyone they chose outside residential buildings in the Bronx. And by “anyone they chose” I mean primarily black and Latino men. U.S. District Judge Shira Schedlin, troubled by the practice, found that a group of black and Latino residents who live in the Bronx could bring claims on behalf of potentially thousands of people who have been stopped outside buildings for nothing more than being a man of color. “While it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the N.Y.P.D. has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx,” Judge Scheindlin ruled.

According to the lawsuit, the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program violates the Constitution because it allows and embraces profiling, rather than requiring police have any individualized suspicion or reasonable belief that a person is about to commit a crime. Parts of the program, including one called “Operation Clean Halls,” embraced profiling explicitly and, according to the court, must be halted immediately.

In the decision, the judge ordered the police “to cease performing trespass stops” outside the private buildings in the program unless officers have reasonable suspicion, a legal standard that requires officers to be acting on more than just a hunch. The fact that a person was simply seen entering or leaving a building was not enough to permit the police to stop someone, “even if the building is located in a high-crime area, and regardless of the time of day,” the judge ruled. Nor is it enough for an officer to conduct a stop simply because the officer had observed the person move furtively, Judge Scheindlin said.

Much of the ruling criticizes the training the N.Y.P.D provides officers, which Judge Scheindlin suggested purposefully tried to evade the Fourth Amendment. According to the court, the evidence in this case, “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”

The ruling came after a seven-day hearing in October where nine black and Latino residents testified about being stopped while leaving their homes or visiting friends and relatives as guests. “Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote. “For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat. In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, however, I am compelled to conclude that this is the case.”

The court described the process like this: as a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.” The court continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”

Despite protests from law enforcement that stop-and-frisk is a necessary tool in reducing crime, the N.Y.P.D. is going to have to make some changes, and soon. This ruling was the first in a set of three cases challenging the practice before the court, and if the tone and substance are any indication, the court is not impressed with Mayor Bloomberg and his men and women in blue. And it shouldn’t be. Heightened policing of communities of color doesn’t make anyone safer if that policing is based on assumptions first and evidence second.

Related Stories:

CISPA Passes The House. Why We Should Be Wary

Police Use Of Cellphone Tracking Threatens Privacy

The Patriot Act Ten Years Later

Photo from Elvert Barnes via flickr.


Lydia Price

It's the same thing the Nazis did to my people and others in Europe. America is becoming a police state and they use the threat of terrorism and crime to lull us into a mind-set of acceptance and complacency. Don C., I loved your comment!

Joan Q.
Joan Q4 years ago

@ Diana S.: I suspect there's something terribly wrong with your reasoning, but I don't give a flying fickle finger of fate about you. Rather, I like Don C. who has the b*lls to "tell it like it is." Where there is one cop who decides he's the judge and jury as well as the officer on the beat, there's tyranny. Period.

Winn Adams
Winn A4 years ago


Ken H.
Ken H5 years ago

@ Diana S..........QUOTE....
Bring on the drones, make stop-and-frisk mandatory, because I don't EVER want to be the innocent victim of criminal violence!!!!! END QUOTE.....

I'm still not sure if you are just kidding,part of me thinks you are but with each new sentence you wrote i was "somewhat" certain you were not kidding.......WOW!!!!!!! You are already a victim. Now i'm not against police doing their jobs,but what good is their protection if they make you a victim??There is a line,and once crossed its hard to make right,people should not be treated as if they are in the wrong without good reasonable doubt.And i dont even get why they are going this route because without respect police are highly out numbered out there,and that puts their lives even more on the line.

Don Cordell
Donald Cordell5 years ago

I grew up in Detroit, MI, at age 17 I moved to Los Angeles, CA and almost immediately after dark, walking anywhere in town after dark, I was stopped, searched and abused by cops. Walking home from the library at 7 PM stopped. From 1944 to 1949 I experianced this problem, at least once a year, stopped, and because I had the attitude that this was illegal, I was detained on suspicion, held for 3 days, with no Charge, sent to lineups where someone could have decided I looked like the criminal they wanted in Prison. It got to the point after the last detention in August 1949 I was ready to buy a gun, to kill the next cop that stopped me. Fortunately I didn't buy that gun, instead I bought a $300 used car, and was never stopped again. I am white, I was always dressed cleanly, I never loitered, always walking at a brisk rate, BUT I had an attitude of "Why stop me, I am doing nothing wrong, where I came from and where I'm going is none of your business, it still isn't their business, if I'm walking or driving. I've never been drunk, I've never been guilty of any crime, except maybe speeding. But: If we continue to let the cops stop anyone, when will it be YOU, innocent or not, beaten because the cop doesn't like your looks or attitude, or your ethnicity, or time of day, and maybe you are not black, but that cop decides he does not like you, and this is happening every day in America. But for the last minute decision not to buy that GUN in 1949, I could have spent my entire life in

Wanda B.
Wanda Bagram5 years ago

The Fourth Amendment (Amendment IV) to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. It was adopted as a response to the abuse of the writ of assistance, which is a type of general search warrant, in the American Revolution. Search and seizure (including arrest) should be limited in scope according to specific information supplied to the issuing court, usually by a law enforcement officer, who has sworn by it. The Fourth Amendment applies to the states by way of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must receive written permission from a court of law, or otherwise qualified magistrate, to lawfully search and seize evidence while investigating criminal activity. A court grants permission by issuing a writ known as a warrant. A search or seizure is generally unreasonable and unconstitutional if conducted without a valid warrant and the police must obtain a warrant whenever practicable. Searches and seizures without a warrant are not considered unreasonable if one of the specifically-established and well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement applies i.e. Probable Cause. So Being Brown and walking is Probable Cause in NYC?

Diana S.
Diana S5 years ago

This is just another example of "political correctness" gone horribly wrong! One man's "racial profiling" is another's "on-the-job experience."

A teen-age friend of mine a few years ago (who, by the way, lived in an uber-upscale neighborhood of gated communities and million-dollar-plus homes) explained to me that, when two or more teenage boys were standing around on the street with their hoods all the way up, there was a better than 99% chance they were dealing drugs. When it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a damn' good bet it's a duck. When a police officer's "radar" tells him that a suspicious looking person is up to no good, he's probably RIGHT!

Only criminals, gang-bangers, illegals, ultra-liberals, and the ACLU are pissing and moaning about "stop-and-frisk" and drones; most reasonably law-abiding citizens (who are becoming more and more frightened that their chances of becoming "collateral damage" are increasing EVERY DAY) are in favor of giving law enforcement personnel any and all tools necessary to STOP criminals BEFORE they can commit more crimes.

I'm one of those law-abiding citizens who live in a relatively safe middle-class neighborhood, and I'm scared s**tless that I could wake up some night with bullet-holes in my window and bullet-holes in ME!!! Bring on the drones, make stop-and-frisk mandatory, because I don't EVER want to be the innocent victim of criminal violence!!!!!

Wanda B.
Wanda Bagram5 years ago

@Cathleen K.- For as much as you are preaching the good touchy feel of low Crime in NYC, (I lived in NYC as a little girl for a few years and I visited my family about 6 years ago and it did not feel super safe. I just think those safe results are doctored really), you seem to fail to realize the point. You are actually happily admitting that a violation of your US Constitutional Rights and a Semi- Police State is a good thing. So you are more than willing to give up your freedoms for a feel of safety. Sorry but When Storm Sandy ripped through there I didn’t see happy safety but violent looting and theft.
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Benjamin Franklin

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola5 years ago

Thanks for sharing!

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener5 years ago

The whole world is turning into a fascist police state... yes we're still very close to the Dark Ages!