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Why Police Departments Need to Review Their Stop-and-Frisk Policies

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 20, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Police stop-and-frisk policies have been controversial from their inception during the 1990s. Opponents have complained that allowing officers to detain and search based only on "reasonable suspicion" leads to hundreds of thousands of baseless stops, mostly of black and Latino citizens, and, ultimately, is ineffective in fighting or deterring crime. In fact, the City of Milwaukee just agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle claims its police department's stop-and-frisk practices targeted black and Latino people through racial profiling.

While many cities claim to have scaled back their stop-and-frisk policies in recent years (former Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn denied the use of the practice), the settlement may cause departments nationwide to reassess their policies and practices when it comes to stopping, detaining, and searching citizens.

Stop Stop-and-Frisk

The American Civil Liberties Union (who filed the lawsuit on behalf of six African-American or Latino plaintiffs) accused the Milwaukee Police Department of conducting a "vast and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program" that resulted in over 350,000 unlawful stops between 2010 and 2017. The resulting settlement requires an overhaul of how Milwaukee police conduct and report stops-and-frisks, mandates that police stops be supervised and monitored, and that officers found to conduct unlawful stops be counseled, retrained, or disciplined.

The settlement also requires officers to release data about all stops to the public and meet regularly with a community group to provide input on policing strategies and their impact on the public. According to the ACLU, other police forces should pay attention.

Implicate Nationally, Reform Locally

"The reforms are local, but the implications are national," Nusrat Choudhury, Deputy Director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program wrote in the wake of the Milwaukee lawsuit. "This settlement sends a signal to police departments across the country about how to remedy stop-and-frisk practices that wrongfully criminalize people of color." Choudhury recommends that departments "conduct internal and external audits to ensure that stops and frisks are supported by the reasonable suspicion required by the Fourth Amendment."

The leading case on stop-and-frisk law remains Terry v. Ohio, under which police must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been, is being, or is about to be committed by the suspect before stopping them. (Thus, many stops-and-frisks are referred to as Terry stops.) A reasonable stop-and-frisk, defined by the Supreme Court, is one "in which a reasonably prudent officer is warranted in the circumstances of a given case in believing that his safety or that of others is endangered, he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous."

"And to work for all of us," Choudhury adds, "policing depends on law enforcement efforts based on evidence, not stereotypes or bias."

If you think you've been the victim of an illegal stop-and-frisk, contact a civil rights defense attorney immediately.

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