Cardellla: Stop and Frisk: Wrong, But Is It Racist?

“Stop and Frisk” laws are back in the news. The emergence of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency has helped put the controversial policy back in the national spotlight. Bloomberg recently disavowed “Stop and Frisk.” But until as recently as 2018, he’d been one of the policy’s most vociferous defenders. “Stop and Frisk” procedures, as they were applied in New York City when Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, were mayor, were eventually ruled unconstitutional by the courts. “Stop and Frisk” programs have now become equated with racial profiling. A limited form of “Stop and Frisk” is still used in Philadelphia and some other urban areas. But the policy … in any form … is seen as biased by most leaders in African American communities and by progressives. “Stop and Frisk” programs have become equated with racial profiling. But is “Stop and Frisk” inherently racist?

“Stop and Frisk” can be defined as a police technique that involves stopping civilians on the street and at times searching for weapons. The national policy was included in the 1994 crime bill passed during President Bill Clinton’s first term in office. The bill included other elements that have also become controversial over time, including expansion of the death penalty, the “three strikes” provision and enhanced penalties, specifically for crack cocaine, which disproportionately affected minority communities.

The 1994 crime bill was not the brainchild of right-wing zealots. It was written by moderates and liberals. There is no doubt that its enforcement often involved racial profiling and focused almost entirely on people of color in the inner cities. Seen through the prism of today’s environment, “Stop and Frisk” has become a symbol of a racist policy against African Americans and Latinos. But in 1994, when the bill was passed, the consensus was that “Stop and Frisk” was an imperfect but necessary solution to what was considered unbearable levels of violent urban crime. As such, the policy was supported by many black activists and political leaders. Those supporters included the first elected African American mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, Congressman James Clyburn, the publisher of EBONY MAGAZINE and — though he voiced some reservations about elements of the bill at the time — by the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kweisi Mfume. White liberals in good standing today with people of color supported the 1994 crime bill.  Among them are then-Sena. Joe Biden, the Clintons and progressives’ favorite presidential candidate, then-Congressman Bernie Sanders. It seems to me that in order to believe “Stop and Frisk” is racist, you would have to believe all these folks are racists, too.

“Stop and Frisk” policies wound up having terrible consequences in the communities they were intended to help. The overwhelming number of stops resulted, not in weapons being confiscated or arrests, but in harassment of young black and Latino males. The problem was most often in the way “Stop and Frisk” policy was implemented — on the basis of age and race — in other words, “racial profiling.” But stops were originally supposed to be based on probable cause. Prior to the 1994 crime bill, police had to have a warrant to stop suspicious civilians and for obvious reasons, the necessity for having a warrant in such cases often meant no stop at all. “Stop and Frisk,” as included in the 1994 crime bill, was supposed to provide a practical way to stop crime before it was committed.

Some observers still defend the racial profiling aspect of “Stop and Frisk” policy. “But it worked to reduce violent crime,” they claim. They point to statistics that show that between 1994 and 2017, violent crimes fell by 46% nationally.  But the causes of violent crime are much too complicated to show such a simple cause-and-effect relationship. For instance, violent crime is often related to poor economic conditions. The 1994 crime bill, in fact, included some elements that likely had a positive effect on reducing violent crime. An example is the increased funding for community-oriented police. Even if you still believe that racial profiling in the inner city helped reduce violent crime, it’s hard to justify the immense toll it took on thousands of lives. Relations between police and people of color were rubbed raw by “Stop and Frisk.” None of us who are parents would want our sons subjected to being shoved up against a wall and frisked merely because of their age and skin color. Much too often, those stops increased the chances of police-citizens confrontations that resulted in otherwise innocent people being arrested. In the New York City of Michael Bloomberg, stops went down from the hundreds of thousands to 10,000 to 12,000 a year. And perhaps more importantly, violent crime did NOT increase.

Should political and community leaders be demonized for supporting “Stop and Frisk” policy? Were they racists or well-intentioned people, both black and white, who failed to foresee the unintended consequences on minorities? Is it important?

Misguided charges of racism only serve to feed the cynicism that is so prevalent today. In the case of “Stop and Frisk,” not understanding how that policy would ultimately be implemented caused horrific damage to youthful minorities — damage that can’t be undone. Those who supported “Stop and Frisk” should rightfully be held to account for, at least, short-sightedness. But in most cases, they are not racists.

Many of today’s critics of “Stop and Frisk” were not around in 1994. Context is important to understanding. Understanding is important in avoiding repeating our past mistakes. And calling people racists, after the fact, hurts reputations and solves nothing. 

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