4 Charts That Show Stop-and-Frisk Is a Terrible Crime-Fighting Tool

It's unfair and unconstitutional — and it does a really lousy job of capturing criminals.

I’ve always wondered why supporters of the police tactic known as “stop and frisk” think so highly of it. I guess it’s easy enough for them to brush aside questions of racial fairness and constitutional permissibility — if you’re a law-and-order type, laws that restrain police are mere obstacles to enforcing the kinds of laws that restrain suspected criminals. It’s a bad-guy-versus-good-guy world, and the good guys should always get as much help as they need fighting the bad guys, right?

Maybe. Here’s the problem though: All too often “stop and frisk” turns out to be a lousy crime-fighting tool. The ACLU of Pennsylvania on Tuesday released a report showing just how lousy. According to the analysis, Philly Police initiated more than 200,000 stop-and-frisk encounters in 2014. These five charts from the ACLU report are based on a random sample of 2,974 pedestrian stops that occurred during the first half of that year.

1. All too often, Philadelphians are stopped for no good reason

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Under the Constitution, police can initiate “stop and frisk” encounters only if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the person being stopped has committed, is committing, or is about to commit the crime. Before you scoff at the chart above, understand the ACLU determines this number under a pretty cop-friendly formula — in examining case reports, its analysts are told to accept an officer’s reason for making a stop, then consider how that reason stacks up against the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. If the question is still a close call, the tie goes to the police officer. Yet under a formula that gives police a more-than-ample benefit of the doubt at several key junctures, the ACLU determined that police had no reasonable suspicion to initiate more than a third of their stops. That’s a lot.

2. All too often, it is minorities who are being stopped by police

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I know what you’re going to say: That crime rates are higher in minority communities, so that’s the way the cookie crumbles. One problem with that argument: A crime-fighting system that disproportionately targets minorities for close scrutiny is of course going to find more crimes in minority communities: You have a greater tendency to find a thing if you’re looking for it. Speaking of which:

3. Minority communities are disproportionately targeted for unreasonable searches

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Remember earlier, when we said the ACLU deemed 37 percent of all stops were unreasonable? That number is 38 percent for African Americans — almost right on the nose for the average. But whites were unfairly targeted in just 32 percent of stops they experienced. That might not sound like a huge percentage-point difference, but as the chart above indicates, it means that one white person is unreasonably stopped in Philadelphia for every 4.36 black persons who faces the same unfair situation (or 3 for every 13). (Latinos aren’t stopped at the same rate, but they experience — proportionately — the most unfairness of all. Forty-one percent of stops involving Latinos are without what the ALCU deemed reasonable suspicion for a crime.)

4. Yet for all that stopping and frisking, searches rarely turn up evidence of a crime

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“We would expect that seizure of weapons or other contraband would be made in a significant number of these cases if the officers are accurately reporting facts that establish reasonable suspicion,” the ACLU’s lawyers say in the report. “Yet, the rate of recovery is vanishingly small.”

That’s a nice way of calling BS on the whole process. In fact, just 7.5 percent of all pedestrians singled out for stop-and-frisk procedures ended up under arrest. That’s a terrible, terrible track record.

We do want our police armed with the best tools for preventing real crime. But this evidence suggests stop-and-frisk is not one of those tools. Forget left-wing fantasies of racial justice or constitutional fairness — if we’re going to end up in a decades-long fight over intrusive police tactics, let’s at least have the fight be about intrusive police tactics that work.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.