Detroit has a reputation for being a dangerous place. City officials are trying to find ways to combat the high frequency of murders and shootings. Now they have announced they will adopt a version of New York’s controversial “Stop & Frisk” policy mere days after it was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.
The policy would allow Detroit police officers to stop and search individuals who fit the descriptions of suspects or who are engaged in suspicious activity. Erik Ewing, an assistant police chief in Detroit, insists that the policy is “just officers doing good constitutional police work.”
But New York’s policy was just ruled unconstitutional by United States District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin. The lawsuit involved 12 plaintiffs and 19 incidents. After trial, Judge Scheindlin could only justify 5 of those stops. The remaining stops and searches violated the plaintiffs’ 4th and 14th Amendment rights.
The biggest problems the court identified were (1) the lack of reported objective reasons to justify the searches, and (2) the discriminative targeting and treatment of minorities.
Of the 4.4 million stops performed since 2004 over 80% were black or Hispanic. When the suspect was patted down, there was less than a 2% chance a weapon would be found. Even after a full search only 9% revealed weapons and 14% revealed contraband. Blacks were stopped 52% of the time, even though they only made up 23% of the population. Hispanics (29% of the population) were the target of 31% of the searches. Perhaps most importantly, only 12% of all stops resulted in an arrest or charges filed.
Stops were justified using categories like “High Crime Area” (55% of the time), “Suspicious Bulge” (10%), and “Furtive Movements” (42%). A “furtive movement” was so vague, one officer describe it as:
a very broad concept,” and could include a person “changing direction,” “walking in a certain way,” “[a]cting a little suspicious,” “making a movement that is not regular, ”being“ very fidgety,” “going in and out of his pocket,” “going in and out of a location,” “looking back and forth constantly,” “looking over their shoulder,”“adjusting their hip or their belt,” “moving in and out of a car too quickly,” “[t]urning a part of their body away from you,” “[g]rabbing at a certain pocket or something at their waist,” “getting a little nervous, maybe shaking,” and “stutter[ing].”
The Court said this was not sufficient to justify the stop and frisk.
Nor could the police rely on crime statistics that amounted to indirect racial profiling. The Court said that sharing a race with a high number of criminals does not make a person criminally suspect.
Detroit will be implementing a similar policy to prevent crime through traffic stops. Ewing believes that the strategy is “just being proactive” and that racial disparities are due to Detroit’s high African American population.
While the Court in New York did not rule out any policy of stop and frisk, Detroit’s decision to implement such a similar policy so soon after the ruling definitely raises some concern for residents’ Constitutional rights.