Stop-and-Frisk: The Facts

Stop & Frisk

On the 15th of each month, the Newark Police Department posts on its website statistics on the number of people stopped and frisked in each precinct. The ACLU-NJ will regularly analyze this information and post our findings to help the public understand the bigger picture of stops in Newark.

Why is Newark releasing this data?

The ACLU-NJ worked with Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s administration and the NPD to create a policy that would make the department more transparent. In June 2013, Newark responded by enacting the most comprehensive stop-and-frisk reporting policy in the country. The first batch of data was released just days after a federal judge determined that New York City’s use of stop-and-frisk amounted to racial profiling and an unconstitutional policy.

The New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) use of stop-and-frisk has made the tactic one of the most controversial police practices in America. As the nation’s largest police department, the NYPD has an outsize influence on all major cities’ policing practices, but especially in Newark, just 10 miles away.

What is stop-and-frisk, and when can police do it?

Stop-and-frisk is a police tactic that allows officers to briefly stop and question somebody based on reasonable suspicion that the person is committing or is about to commit a crime. If the officer reasonably believes that person has a dangerous weapon, and the officer fears for his or her safety, the officer may pat the suspect down to search for the weapon. Then, if based on the frisk an officer forms probable cause that a weapon is present, the officer may conduct a more extensive search of the person’s clothing or bag. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the stop-and-frisk tactic in Terry v. Ohio in 1968. However, the circumstances that led to the Supreme Court’s decision differ radically from what stop-and-frisk has become today.

In Terry, an a 39-year veteran of the police force methodically observed men casing a jewelry store, walking back and forth in front of the store’s window 24 times. Suspecting they intended to rob the store, the officer questioned them and based on their responses and behavior, suspected they had weapons and proceeded to pat down the outside of their clothing. The officer discovered weapons and they were charged with weapons possession.

But much has changed since Terry. Trends in policing since the 1990s have led major police departments to use “Terry stops” as a de facto dragnet of innocent people, often people of color, or of people engaged in small-scale non-violent offenses.

How do police officers use stop-and-frisk to discriminate?

Stop-and-frisk – if applied in accordance with the Constitution – is not inherently discriminatory. But the way police use stop-and-frisk today all too often does not comport with the reasons the courts originally permitted it. In New York City, a federal judge found the NYPD violated the constitutional rights of people of color because police routinely stopped and frisked residents based on their race, not on whether reasonable suspicion existed.

Why is stop-and-frisk abuse a problem?

First, a police stop or search of someone without individualized suspicion of a crime violates the Fourth Amendment guarantee of freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Second, when officers use race or ethnicity as a proxy for suspicion, it violates people’s civil rights. Third, stop-and-frisk abuse undermines public safety by sowing distrust of the police among community members.

Why release data on stop-and-frisk in Newark now?

The Newark Police Department has a long history of discriminatory searches and seizures, going back to the 1967 rebellion. In 2011, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the NPD’s record of civil rights abuses. The public has a right to know how the NPD is using stop-and-frisk, and the City of Newark has an interest in making its police operations as transparent as possible.

What to do if you are stopped by the police

Get the ACLU-NJ’s “Bust” Card

You have rights when dealing with the police. The ACLU-NJ’s palm card provides guidance for what to know and what to do if you’re stopped by the police.

Contact the ACLU-NJ

If you feel your civil liberties have been violated, or if you want to report a stop that you feel violated your rights, contact the ACLU-NJ. We may be able to help you seek justice.

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