“Stop and frisk” is Trump’s way of saying he favors racial profiling of Americans

Donald Trump disagrees.
Donald Trump disagrees.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Donald Trump believes “law and order” are the key to fixing race relations in America—and he says his preferred method of imposing law and order on society is a tactic called ”stop and frisk.”

In the Sep. 26 debate, Trump responded to a question about healing the country’s racial divide—illustrated by police shootings of black men—by focusing on inner-city crime that is making the lives of African-Americans and Latinos, in his words, “hell.” Stop and frisk, he says, will let police “take the gun away from criminals that shouldn’t be having it.”

The thing is, police already do that: they take guns away from criminals who shouldn’t have them every day, all over the US. The police are constitutionally allowed to stop people they suspect of criminal activity and, if they strongly suspect that they are carrying a weapon, to frisk them.

What Trump was really proposing was an intensive, targeted version of the stop and frisk search method, which was deployed in New York City throughout the last decade.

“[Y]ou do stop and frisk, which worked very well, Mayor Giuliani is here, worked very well in New York,” said Trump during the debate. “It brought the crime rate way down.”

Launched in 1994 by the New York City Police Department, the plan encouraged police officers to aggressively stop and search anyone with “suspicious” behavior. They could then interrogate them, and frisk them. The policy was controversial, and in 2012, under Bloomberg, the NYPD began winding it down. (However, it continues in some pockets of the city still today.)

What was distinctive about New York City’s stop and frisk program—and, we assume, why Trump brought it up—is who the police stopped.

Even though they made up only a quarter of the population, more than half of those stopped were black. In other words, the NYPD indirectly but systematically equated being black with being suspicious.

It was this—that the NYPD discriminated against men of color in carrying out its program—that prompted a US district court judge to rule the NYPD’s application of “stop and frisk” unconstitutional in 2013. The judge found it violated the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable search and seizure, and the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. (Though the judge was later removed from the case, her decision stands. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appealed the decision; however, his successor, Bill de Blasio, dropped the appeal.) Yet, stop and frisk was already its way out before the decision was issued:

Trump refuses to accept the ruling, blaming the twilight of NYPD’s racial profiling program on “a very against-police judge,” and denying that the program was found to be “unconstitutional.” And when Hillary Clinton pointed out that crime—including murder—has continued to decline since New York City (mostly) scrapped “stop and frisk,” Trump snapped, “No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong.”

Clinton: No, I’m not.

Trump: Murders are up. All right. You check it. You check it.

We checked it. Trump is wrong on both counts. The Bloomberg administration began winding down the program in 2012, before the court decision. And New York City’s murder rate is now at historic lows. (Note that when pressed, Trump often cites Chicago, which is indeed having a freak crime spate—and is therefore an outlier among American cities.)

It’s no wonder that crime has declined along with the stop and frisk rate. Between 2003 and 2013, the NYPD recorded nearly 5 million stops. However, only one out of every 500 suspicious-looking people actually had guns (and even then, it isn’t clear what share of these gun possessions were illegal.) Only around 6% of stops resulted in arrests, and another 6% in summons.

The NYPD’s abysmal “stop and frisk” hit rate implies that the community could have been made safer had the city invested its police resources into something more productive. (For instance, better training, as Hillary Clinton proposed during the same segment of the debate.) It’s likely the program actually made communities less safe; the unconscionable invasion of young men’s privacy stoked distrust of police in communities of color.

A couple of deeply disturbing things about Trump’s worldview emerge when his “stop and frisk” logic is unraveled:

  • It’s important to be clear about what Trump is proposing. By championing the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” he implied that police should stop law-abiding people of color more frequently.
  • Trump also implied that upping the rate at which police stop law-abiding people of color will reduce crime, despite “stop and frisk” being demonstrably ineffective at preventing crime.
  • Trump proposed “stop and frisk” as a way to heal racial divisions, which have been widened by the recent spate of high-profile police killings of black men and women. He seems to be implying that blacks’ outrage at being treated unfairly by the police will diminish if the police arbitrarily stop them more frequently.
  • His insistence that “stop and frisk” isn’t unconstitutional exhibits an alarming “contempt for the Constitution,” as blogger Andrew Sullivan put it.
  • Finally, he reveals his disdain for the independence of the US judiciary (his dismissal of the ruling because it came from ”a very against-police judge” echoed his remarks that an Indiana-born judge overseeing the Trump University fraud suit couldn’t be impartial because of his Mexican heritage).

One has to wonder why Trump responded to Holt’s question the way he did. Does he actually believe that using arbitrary searches to crack down on crime in inner-city communities will make blacks (and other people of color) feel their lives matter to the police and larger society? It seems likelier that Holt’s question offered Trump a chance to distort crime rates and Americans’ impression of inner cities. By lying about the success of “stop and frisk” in a way that strengthened stereotypes of black people as prone to violence and criminality, he implied that police shootings aren’t worthy of our attention, given the appalling state of urban crime.

Whatever his logic, we now know more about the Republican candidate’s vision for the country. “Law and order” will wield its power arbitrarily, accountable to neither fact nor law. In Trump’s America, people of color will be kept “safe” by police that are required to be suspicious of them—and they’ll no longer have the Constitution to protect their rights.