“Stop and Frisk”: Is It Ineffective, Inherently Racist, Illegal, and Unconstitutional?

It has been widely reported for over two years now that crime in Philadelphia is out of control. We wrote a piece months ago how research shows that police shortages in Philadelphia can be a major contributing factor to the rise in crime. In a March 2022 press conference with PA Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Philadelphia Police commissioner Danielle Outlaw told reporters that the police department is down 900 officers. In an April 2022 interview, FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby told reporters that the police department is down over 1,000 officers.

We reported just last week that Philadelphia continues to experience record levels of homicides, shootings, carjackings, and other robberies. At this current pace, 2022 will surpass last years record number of violent crime in the city. With all of the above facts and circumstances, city elected and appointed leaders are grasping for solutions to curb this rise in violence.


In 2021, Philadelphia City Council allocated $155 million dollars to “anti-violence spending” for community-based , grassroots violence intervention groups, and other nonprofit organizations. But WHYY reported that the money is not being spent correctly by the organizations, or the money is not be allocated by the city at all. What’s even more concerning is that there is no system in place to measure whether or not these programs are working to reduce violence. City Hall is just allocating money in “hopes” that it works, or knowingly allocates $155 million dollars to causes that will not work because it is the popular thing to do politically.

Philadelphia has had a number of high-profile shooting incidents in the city this summer like the South Street Mass Shooting, the shooting of two police officers at the July 4th Welcome America festival, and today the shooting of a 19-year-old on SEPTA’s busiest subway platform in center city under City Hall. These high-profile events have people scared to normal things in Philadelphia like, ride public transportation, go to concerts, or go out to dinner on a weekend night.


In response to these incidents, local elected officials have begun to debate the practice of “Stop and Frisk” again. City Council President Darrell Clarke has suggested that the city revisit its practice as long as the stops are constitutional.

This statement was met with outrage from other city council-members, such as Helen Gym, who despite citing research, incorrectly claims that stop and frisk “does not work”. This may be because she has no idea what stop and frisk actually is. After all, shes never been a cop, lawyer, or received any higher education on the matter. So lets clear up what “stop and frisk” actually is.

“Stop and Frisk” is a term that was adopted by NYPD in the 1990’s for a policing program to reduce crime in the city by seeking out people on the streets who are carrying illegal guns. Frankly put, people who are out on the streets carrying an illegal gun are the people most likely to shoot, be shot, or both.

There is a lot of data out there on NYC’s stop and frisk program, which logged over 600,000 stops in 2011, but people still argue over its effectiveness. Critics of stop and frisk point to the fact that only 12% of stops results in a conviction and that in some years, crime “only decreased by 2%”. I think in a city like Philadelphia, where crime is up over 50%, a lot of people would be happy with a 2% decrease as a good starting point.

Helen Gym also argues that courts have decided that stop and frisk does not work. There has been no such ruling by a court on the methods effectiveness. Courts rule on the legality or constitutionality of the practice. And since you mentioned it Helen, courts have ruled many times that the practice of “stop and frisk” is completely legal and constitutional. See cases like Terry v. Ohio and United States v. Arvizu. So stop and frisk can be boiled down to following basic principles.

  1. The officer observes what he reasonably believes is a violation of city ordinance, local, state, or federal law. The officer must be able to articulate the facts and circumstances that lead the officer to the conclusion that an offense is a) about to be committed, b) is in progress, and c) was already committed. This amounts to Reasonable Articulable Suspicion (RAS) and it gives the officer the legal ability to stop a person and detain them for investigation. This is a temporary detainment, not an arrest.
  2. If RAS is established, the officer may confirm the subjects identity. The officer may also perform a pat-down of the subjects outer garments only for the purpose of detecting a weapon that may be used to harm the officer or others. If the officer detects a weapon, and can articulate why he reasonably believes the object is a weapon, a full search of the area where the potential weapon is located is now legal. If the officer successfully locates a weapon, and determines that the possession of the weapon is illegal, probable cause for arrest is met and a full search of the offender can be conducted. This is called “search incident to arrest”. Anything else that is found on the subject that is illegal is now open to criminal charges as well.

Helen Gym and her city council followers may be confused with the federal court ruling in Floyd v. New York, which correctly held that a portion of the stops that were conducted in New York were unconstitutional because RAS was not established and because there was sufficient evidence to suggest that some officers were targeting people of color. Let’s be clear. When people are asking for the return of “stop and frisk”, they are not asking for police to stop people without RAS or based on someones race/nationality. People want stop and frisk done legally, because it DOES work.

As you can see, this process has been labeled “Stop and Frisk”, potentially for political reasons. The basic practice of police stopping pedestrians when RAS or probable cause is established occurs thousands of times every singe day in the United States. Police departments call it all sorts of other things, such as “Terry Stops “, “pedestrian stops”, or “precision policing”. The practice never actually stopped, but it did certainly slow down enough to the point where Philadelphia is in the worst gun violence crisis the city’s seen in its over 300 year history.

If Philadelphia’s politicians actually want to see a reduction in gun violence, a precision policing method, that includes reasonable suspicion stops, and a properly staffed police force, may be the proven crime reduction method they’re looking for.

2 thoughts on ““Stop and Frisk”: Is It Ineffective, Inherently Racist, Illegal, and Unconstitutional?

  1. So you never answered the question of effectiveness for the practice of stop and frisk

    1. Maybe I just wasn’t clear enough. Sorry! I wrote that NYC saw a 2% decrease in violent crime. Which may not seem like a lot, but it’s significant when crime is up 50% right now in Philly

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: