In the early 2000s, the New York City Police Department made extensive use of the stop-and-frisk policy, with over 685,000 stops being made at the policy’s peak in 2011. In new research, Chris M. Smith and colleagues find that Black men were disproportionately more likely to have a gun drawn and pointed at them during these stops, and that for Black women and white and Latinx men and women, just being in the presence of a Black man increased their chances of having a police gun drawn on them as well. She writes that while the stop-and-frisk policy was ruled to be in unconstitutional in 2013, New York City’s Mayor, Eric Adams’s new tough on crime policies may signal a return to similarly discriminatory policies.
New York City Police pointed their service weapons at civilians during approximately 1,500 investigatory stops each year from 2007 to 2014. New research shows that being in the presence of a Black man during the stop increased the risk of having a gun pointed at you by the New York City Police during this time.
Investigatory stops, more colloquially known as stop-and-frisk, were a very common form of racial discrimination by police over a decade ago. Before #BlackLivesMatter brought attention to the racial discrimination in fatal police violence, thousands of New Yorkers and visitors were being stopped by New York City police for “walking while Black.” Investigatory stops are primarily police-initiated stops during which police identify suspicious persons based on their appearance and behavior. The legal criterion for investigatory stops is “reasonable suspicion” protected by the 1968 US Supreme Court Terry v. Ohio decision.
Studying police violence through police stops
The New York Police Department (NYPD) is required to document all investigatory stops using UF-250 forms, and it is required to make the data publicly available. Prior to 2015, documenting “reasonable suspicion” included a series of checkboxes which include broad, vague, and discretionary justifications of stop-and-frisk including “suspicious bulge,” “acting as a lookout,” “fits relevant description,” and, the most checked justification, “furtive movements.” At its peak in 2011, NYPD recorded 685,724 investigatory stops, more than 1,800 per day. Only 80,396 of these stops resulted in arrests, which is the number the ACLU uses to calculate that 88 percent of investigatory stops in 2011 were of innocent people.
My colleagues and I examined nearly three million investigatory stops recorded by NYPD from 2007-2014 in a study on police violence. In our forthcoming publication, we looked at the race and gender differences among civilians who experience police violence during investigatory stops. Violence includes officers putting their hands on civilians, handcuffing civilians, but also drawing and pointing their service weapons at civilians. When police fire their service weapons at civilians, that policing event no longer warrants a UF-250 form. Fatal police violence is not captured in investigatory stop records, but potentially fatal violence with officers’ guns pointed at civilians certainly is.
Black men disproportionately had police guns pointed at them
Overall, potentially fatal violence was rare during investigatory stops, but Black men disproportionately had police guns drawn and pointed at them. Police pointed their service weapons at civilians during 0.4 percent of investigatory stops. While the percentage is small, the raw count is substantial given the quantity of investigatory stops occurring during this period. From 2007 to 2014, NYPD recorded pointing their service weapons during 11,984 investigatory stops, 68 percent of which targeted Black men.
Our statistical comparison is not surprising given the public attention #BlackLivesMatter has brought to the topic of race disparities in police violence and the work the ACLU has conducted on race disparities in investigatory stops.
However, we were surprised to find the just being in the presence of a Black man increased a person’s risk of police pointing a gun at them during an investigatory stop. This is true for Black men and women, but also for white and Latinx men and women. In fact, Asian men and women were the only groups for whom this was not the case. (Asian men and women also make up the smallest ethnic group, three percent, targeted by NYPD investigatory stops). The increased violence in the presence of Black men has a disproportionate impact on Black women who are burdened by the overpolicing and mass incarceration of their loved ones. On average, four Black women were stopped in the presence of Black men per day from 2007-2014, which put Black women at heightened risk of direct exposure to police violence.
Photo by Josh Couch on Unsplash
A return to stop-and-frisk policy in New York City?
Nearly a decade ago in a landmark case on August 12, 2013, the United States District Court of New York ruled stop-and-frisk unconstitutional under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the US Constitution. Stop-and-frisk violated a person’s constitutional freedoms from “unreasonable searches and seizures” and right to “equal protection of the laws.” The judge stated that the justifications for reasonable suspicion were “vague and subjective terms.”
NYPD changed its tactics following the District Court ruling, and investigatory stops dropped dramatically. NYPD recorded 532,911 investigatory stops in 2012 the year before the Court ruling, 191,851 in 2013 the year of the ruling, and 45,787 in 2014 the year following the ruling—a drop of 91 percent between the years of 2012 and 2014. But the practice has not gone away. Investigatory stops remain among NYPD’s crime reduction tools. The most recent NYPD data posted shows that in 2021, NYPD recorded 8,947 investigatory stops, about 25 stops a day. These stops are still violent. Police pulled out their service weapons and pointed them at civilians during 525 of these stops in 2021.
Recently, New York City elected a new Mayor, Eric Adams. Mayor Adams was an NYPD officer and captain, and as a state senator he worked to end “NYPD’s abuses of stop-and-frisk.” Adams pledged to reduce New York City crime during his mayoral campaign. During his first year as Mayor in 2022, he focused on gun violence, homelessness removal, and reinstating controversial plainclothes units. Stop-and-frisk policing remains relevant to this new leadership’s tough on crime stance despite the concerns a decade ago. New York City residents and voters need to not lose sight of the history of these controversial and discriminatory policing practices, while Mayor Adams reinvigorates them expecting different results.
- This article is based on the paper, ‘Race, Gender, and Police Violence in the Shadow of Controlling Images’ in Social Problems.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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