This week, New York City is defending itself against a lawsuit that claims its controversial "stop and frisk" policy is used to illegally detain and search people on the basis of race. The subject of an ongoing trial, the suit also argues that the weak justifications given by NYPD officers for most stop-and-frisks fail to meet the constitutional burden for search and seizure. We put together this explainer and some charts to help you make sense of what's going on.
What is "stop and frisk," exactly, and what does it have to do with the NYPD? Starting in the 1970s, in the hope of curbing street crime, New York City began encouraging its officers to stop people they deem suspicious, to question them, and, if there is adequate reason to suspect illegal activities, to pat them down for things like drugs and weapons. This type of police activity has been upheld in the past: In a landmark 1968 case, Terry v. Ohio, a police officer detained three men without a warrant, suspicious that they were casing a local convenience store for a hold-up. One of the men had a revolver, and the Supreme Court ruled that the warrantless search was constitutional because the cop had reasonable suspicion to believe the men were about to commit a crime.
If it's constitutional, then what's the problem? Well, it's not always constitutional. It's only constitutional when the police have reasonable suspicion to believe someone poses a danger, has committed a crime, or is preparing to commit one. And police cannot use race as a criterion for any search and seizure. But New York City has faced allegations of unconstitutional policing against communities of color for a long time.