Police have a tough job, and one of the things that’s hardest is spotting criminals before a more serious incident occurs. What does that mean? Well, ideally you would like local law enforcement to catch a person illegally carrying a gun before they shoot someone, or to stop a drug dealer hoping to sell meth to kids before he gets to the schoolyard. Almost everyone will probably agree with that. What they might not agree with are the methods that are being employed to find and catch potential criminals ahead of time.
The most common method that you’ve probably heard about is called stop-and-frisk, and it’s been a big news story in our country for the past few years. Why? Because of New York. The NYPD instituted a policy of stopping and frisking people in high-crime areas and was immediately accused of showingracial bias because those areas almost always ended up being the neighborhoods where minorities lived and worked. And even when they branched out to other areas of the city, minorities were still being searched far more than whites. The NYPD’s own data supports this!
“So what,” you say. “That’s New York’s problem.” Except that,it’s happening in your own backyard, too. Police in Colorado have been randomly stopping and frisking people for years, and those “suspects” are overwhelmingly African American. But it’s not something that’s being publicized because Colorado police aren’t required to keep any demographic data about the stops. Now, this might not seem like a big deal, but in the two major cities that do offer data on the stops, black people are frisked “three to four times more often than their population would suggest.”
Are Colorado Stop-and-Frisk Policies Constitutional?
Those kinds of statistics are troubling, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy itself violates the Constitution. New York’s stop-and-frisk tactics were deemed Unconstitutional by a federal judge this past August in part because they targeted high-crime areas. According to the Denver Police Department, their policies differ significantly.
Still, it shares similarities with the New York law not only because minorities are disproportionately targeted, but also because it arguably violates laws about probable cause and privacy. Proponents would argue that the tradeoff is worth it because stop-and-frisk helps to prevent crimes, but if data out of New York is to be believed, 90 percent of the time police made random people stop so that they could search them, nothing was found.Is it this bad in Colorado? Again, since little data is available, it’s difficult to judge even for an expert in criminal defense.
Good, Bad, and Ugly – Doing Away With Stop-and-Frisk
Thinking about it that way, people should be celebrating the fact that New York police had to alter stop-and-frisk after the judge’s ruling, but it’s not that simple. According to a report from the New York Post, in the month after the ruling, the rate of gun crime in the city went up by 13 percent from the same time the previous year.
Was this caused by halting stop-and-frisk? We’ll never really know. But what we do know is that all those innocent people – the 9 out of every 10 – didn’t have to go through harassment and the annoyance of being frisked for doing absolutely nothing. This kind of policy should matter to all Americans because it speaks to what kind of world you want to be living in. Not just one where minorities are being profiled or where your privacy is frequently violated, but where it’s accepted practice for police officers to take shortcuts to catch criminals. That’s the kind of thing that leads to miscarriages of justice and innocent people serving time – unless they fight back.
About the Author:
Kimberly Diego is a criminal defense attorney in Denver practicing at The Law Office of Kimberly Diego. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University and her law degree at the University of Colorado. She was named one of Super Lawyers’ “Rising Stars of 2012” and “Top 100 Trial Lawyers in Colorado” for 2012 and 2013 by The National Trial Lawyers. Both honors are limited to a small percentage of practicing attorneys in each state. She has also been recognized for her work in domestic violence cases.