Baltimore Police Abuse Stop-and-Frisk

by TChris

Some police officers stop motorists for “driving while black,” a practice that caused some jurisdictions to require officers to keep records that justify their decisions to initiate traffic stops. Some officers make unwarranted stops of individuals to satisfy unwritten “quota” systems that reward officers with promotions if they are aggressive in their decisions to stop and frisk individuals in the hope that the encounter will uncover drugs or a gun. Both may be occurring in Baltimore, where (according to police documents reviewed by the Baltimore Sun) tens of thousands of stops occurred last year, frequently accompanied by frisks of the detained individuals.

Patrol officers - whose productivity is measured in large part by how many stops and arrests they make - have told their union representatives that what could be an effective tool for reducing crime is being overused in a daily push to ratchet up statistics. Some call stop-and-frisks a "VCR detail" - for violation of civil rights, according to Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, the president of the police union.

Many Baltimore officers are ignoring a requirement that they document frisks, making it difficult to grasp the full extent of their intrusions into the privacy of the individuals they encounter. It seems plain, however, that the burden of being stopped and frisked has fallen largely on Baltimore’s black population.

Police record on the citizen contact receipts the races of people they stop and frisk. But because of flawed record keeping, city police were unable to provide a detailed racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk statistics. A preliminary analysis of 1,804 stop-and-frisks shows that officers used the tactic on about six blacks for every white person in a city where the population ratio is roughly two to one, according to an internal police report.

The 1,804 figure, supplied by the police department, almost certainly understates the number of stop-and-frisks, which the Sun pegged at 130,000. Accurate numbers are difficult to find because Baltimore police all but ignore a law that requires each stop-and-frisk to be reported to the state police.

As of late September, city police had submitted 11 stop-and-frisk reports for the previous 12 months, according to Maryland State Police records.

In light of that statistic, Baltimore’s mayor has called for “better police record-keeping and training” and the police have suddenly decided to “audit” their records. But in general, the mayor approves of the aggressive use of stop-and-frisks, while hedging his remarks with the claim that he wants the police to obey the Constitution.

Baltimore police officers justify “the in-your-face tactic” with the claim that stopping and frisking individuals “reduces crime by scaring criminals into thinking they could be searched at any moment.” Of course, it also scares everyone else (at least those with black skin) into thinking (correctly) that they could be searched at any moment. Random searches of citizens may be seen as an effective crime control tactic, but the Constitution doesn’t permit privacy to be sacrificed in the name of efficiency.

In particular, the police say that aggressive use of stop-and-frisks helps them take guns off the streets. But the Fourth Amendment does not permit the police to stop anyone unless there is an objectively reasonable basis for suspecting the individual has committed (or is about to commit) a crime. And it doesn’t permit a frisk unless the officer has an objectively reasonable basis for suspecting that the individual is armed. That doesn’t appear to be the standard used in Baltimore, which might explain why officers so frequently fail to document their decisions to stop and frisk suspects.

William Elliott Jr., 40, is a frequent target, and he complains that he is often stopped without cause. ... "They think everybody is a drug dealer," he said as he walked through the Park Heights neighborhood. He said he has been stopped and frisked so many times that he has lost count. Elliott said an officer recently stopped and searched him while he was walking one of his children to a school bus stop.

Despite the beliefs of the Baltimore police, harassing individuals isn’t a useful crime control technique.

Those initial, unaudited numbers show that one Southeastern District officer had reported stopping and frisking people 481 times over a five-month period this year. The number of guns the officer seized: zero.

Some officers don’t appreciate being pressured to violate the Constitution.

"We get calls all the time from [officers] saying 'I just can't keep this pace up. ... People are tired of me pulling up and harassing them,'" said Roussey, the police union president. "It's all about numbers, and it doesn't matter how you get them."

But it does matter. Instead of supporting the aggressive use of stop-and-frisks, Baltimore’s mayor should support reforms that are aimed at assuring the police obey the Constitution.

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    Re: Baltimore Police Abuse Stop-and-Frisk (none / 0) (#1)
    by scarshapedstar on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:06:16 PM EST
    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. I have little respect for people who simultaneously insist that they should answer to no one yet that they have nothing to hide.