Imagine that you’re walking calmly down a street with your partner one night. Suddenly, and without any reason at all, the police stop you, question you and carry out a full body search of you and your partner. That seems too intrusive, no?
That is what’s called “stop and frisk,” an aggressive search that is one of the more controversial tactics used by police these days.
And it surely would seem even worse if you find out that you’re more likely to be subjected to this unpleasant procedure if you are black or Hispanic than if you are white, even though the searches of white people generate proportionally more weapons and other items confiscated.
The “stop and frisk” has been challenged in several lawsuits filed in U.S. courts that seek to limit the practice but not its total prohibition. It has been challenged specially because of the way in which police select who are searched. Some of the reasons that justify a search fall into the category of “suspicious movements,” which can mean merely that a person “changes direction” or “looks over his shoulder” or “puts something in his pocket.”
All this inevitably brings to mind the gold-toothed gangster Pedro Navaja in the Rubén Blades song.
New York City authorities say aggressive “stop and frisk” tactics have had a positive impact in their city. It has allowed police to take many illegal weapons off the streets and make significant drug seizures, according to official reports. It is argued in the long run, the tactic will help to reduce crime and save lives. For authorities, “stop and frisk” has been a key part of reducing crime in the city.
The problem is that the tactic can be easily perceived more as a police assault on citizens than a legitimate tool for preventing crime. Because of that, it runs totally against the modern principles of community policing. As we have said before, modern police practices seek to view and treat citizens as “partners” and not as “potential criminals.”
As Richard Aborn explains in this interview, without a good strategy for communication, adequate protocols and supervision, the use of this tactic can result in serious violations of fundamental human rights and a significant loss of legitimacy for the police. An efficient system of internal controls also is needed to use this tactic properly, as well as a lot of training and coaching for the police personnel who will use the tactic.
Since the priority for police is to be close to citizens, the general recommendation is to avoid tactics that put distance between citizens and police. Or at least control them tightly, if their use is inevitable.