Photo credit: Alexander Choi/Dothwan Photography

The single interaction of a stop and frisk can be life-changing. Being stopped and searched by a police officer on the assumption that you may be committing a crime can range from humiliating to deadly.

I should know. In 2014, I was subject to an illegal stop while visiting my hometown of Wilmington, NC, an incident I wrote about in detail a few years back. At about ten o’clock one sunny November morning, I stepped outside to take a work call. I am a pacer while talking on the phone. I paced throughout the call with my colleague and found myself across the street from the home of a former board member where I was to soon rejoin an in-person meeting, in an upper middle class, predominantly white neighborhood, not far from where I attended my first year and a half of high school. 

Within a matter of minutes, I saw a police car drive up. The officer got out of the car and approached me, without saying anything. Feeling a bit apprehensive, based upon previous encounters with the police, I said: “May I help you, officer?” He replied: “We received a few calls about a suspicious man being in the neighborhood.” I was annoyed and agitated: “This is a public street, and I am not doing anything wrong.” Despite the aggressive tone of his own voice, I realized that it was indeed in my best interest to keep calm. We’ve all seen how police encounters involving Black Americans can go sideways quickly. 

So, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “Okay, let’s do this again.” I then said to the officer, “This is a public street. I have every right to be here. I am doing nothing wrong. I am at a meeting across the street and am speaking with a colleague.” The officer (whose last name is Benton, I later learned) responded, “How do I know that? I don’t know who you are.” I repeated that I had every right to be on a public street and asserted that it was my right not to identify myself. “However,” I said, in the interest of de-escalating the situation, “if you tell me that I do have to identify myself, I will. But I don’t think I have to.” The officer just kept watching me as I continued my call, apparently trying to intimidate me into ending it and being on my merry way. Eventually, my colleagues came out, and we confronted the officer, making clear to him that we believed his illegal stopping of me was the result of racism.

Mine happens to be one of the more fortunate outcomes of an illegal stop and/or frisk. It pained and humiliated me to be targeted like that but, at the end of the day, luckily only my dignity was wounded. It certainly was not the first time after an interaction with the police. In worse cases, that single interaction might be the entry point into the criminal legal system, which can be difficult to escape once a person is in it. In the gravest cases, a stop and frisk can lead to death, as was the case of Eric Garner, whose stop by NYPD officers in 2014 turned fatal at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo. 

For the past ten years, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has released periodic reports on the use of stop and frisk in Philadelphia. The reports are the outcome of a 2010 lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg, and Lin LLP, and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and assess the legality of stops and frisks in the preceding months. One of the reports also reviews the deep racial disparities that lead to most stops and frisks being conducted on Black Philadelphians. 

The latest reports released this week show that, while the city of Philadelphia has made progress since 2011, that progress has stalled in the last year. 

The reports look at stop and frisk data for the latter half of 2019 and reveal some disappointing realities. Over the past year, the number of illegal stops remained the same compared to the first six months of 2018; in 16 percent of stops, police officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the person, meaning that they had no legal justification for what they did. In real numbers, that means that approximately 6,000 people were stopped by Philly police for no reason. 

Meanwhile, during that same period from July to December of 2019, illegal frisks actually increased compared to the first six months of 2018, with 32 percent of frisks occurring with no legal justification. What is worse, it appears that very few of those frisks were necessary. An officer may frisk when there is reason to believe the person is armed, but officers recovered weapons from only a handful of the people they frisked. 

Perhaps more distressing is that the racial disparities in the data remain disturbingly high, with 71% of documented stops happening to Black Philadelphians. Moreover, those racial disparities actually increase when you look at data from less diverse neighborhoods — in other words, the fewer Black people live in a neighborhood, the more intense the racial disparities in stop and frisk become. And when looking at who is subjected to illegal stops, the data shows that Black people in Philadelphia are 50 percent more likely to be stopped by police without a reason than white people. The disparities in who gets frisked are worse — 82% of those frisked in this most recent study were Black Philadelphians.

Finally, the reports show that, in 40% of stops, the justification is a so-called “quality of life” violation, like public consumption of alcohol. Police should be prioritizing crime that threatens public safety. The now-debunked “broken windows” policing theory is a big reason why stop and frisk got so out of hand in the first place.    

It’s clear that the efforts of former Police Commissioner Ross led to some initial positive steps in the city’s compliance with the consent decree that it agreed to in 2011. It’s also true that that progress has slowed in the last year and that new Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has much more work to do to stop illegal stops and frisks and to unravel the deep racial bias that is so embedded in this police practice. That’s why the continued enforcement of the agreement with the city is so important. We know the scope of the problem, and it is the city's responsibility to fix it. The work continues. 

Reggie Shuford is the executive director at ACLU of Pennsylvania.