In the debate over the police tactic known as stop-and-frisk, both sides agree there’s nothing wrong with officers stopping more black and Hispanic than white residents, at least in cities where violent crime is concentrated in minority neighborhoods, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. The question is at what point does stopping a disproportionate number of minorities cross the line into illegal, race-based policing? Determining those limits has been one of the controversial topics in big-city law enforcement, and a question that often has gone before the courts to be answered.
In Philadelphia, civil rights lawyers filed a federal lawsuit this month arguing that police have been targeting people based solely on race. Last year, officers stopped 253,333 pedestrians, 72 percent of whom were African American, the suit says. Lawyer David Rudovsky acknowledges that racial profiling can’t be proved “solely by the numbers.” “The key question is: If you control for factors like police deployment and crime rates, would that explain the disparity?” he said, adding that a better benchmark would be the “hit rate” – how often the stops result in arrest or the discovery of a weapon or other contraband. The lawsuit says just 8 percent of the 2009 stops resulted in arrests, often for “criminal conduct that was entirely independent from the supposed reason for the stop.” Academic studies on stop-and-frisk data in Los Angeles in 2008 and New York City this year found that minorities were being stopped unconstitutionally. Both studies were following city-commissioned reports that found no pattern of race-based policing. Jerry Ratcliffe, a Temple University professor of criminal justice who advises Philadelphia police, said arrest data are not the best way to examine stop-and-frisk. The tactic, in which officers can stop and frisk pedestrians as long as there is “reasonable suspicion” of illegal activity, was designed to drive down the number of illegal guns on the street.