The call comes in for a man wearing blue jeans and a white hooded sweatshirt standing outside the local convenient store pacing back and forth. He has been there for 15 minutes, the clerk tells the dispatcher. “I am not sure what he is up to but I would like the police to check him out.” The information is relayed to the sector car, and the sector car responds. While driving to the scene, the officer recalls that this particular store has been robbed in the past and more than once. As he pulls up, he sees the subject in question pacing back and forth. The subject sees the officer arrive, makes eye contact, and then immediately starts to walk away. The officer engages the subject asking him to talk. The subject complies. The hooded sweatshirt is very large almost too big for the subject wearing it so the officer asks the subject if he has any weapons. The subject states he does not. At the same time he is asking he is also conducting a pat frisk of the subject to make certain the subject is not armed.
Is this a legal pat frisk? I am not a lawyer; I am a cop who believes in the concept of freedom and individual rights, as do most cops I know. A pat frisk or “Terry Stop” as it’s known in law enforcement circles, named after he original case on the topic of stop and frisk” in Terry vs. Ohio. In this landmark case, the courts ruled that if a police officer has reasonable suspicion to believe a person may be a danger to him or others, he may conduct a “Stop and Frisk” for weapons. This ruling has been often misinterpreted. Some believe it points specifically to weapons, and it does, but weapons can be concealed in numerous ways and in numerous places on a body. So actually seeing a weapon is not needed, in my view, to be able to search for one.
Reasonable suspicion to conduct a “stop and frisk” takes into account all the circumstances that present themselves including: the environment (is it a high crime area?), the nature of the call (suspicious person) and the interaction with the subject by police. Through the facts and past, present and ongoing circumstances, police have to make judgments when it comes to stopping and frisking individuals they encounter on the street. Are there times that officers may be overzealous and abuse their powers? Yes, certainly there have been those who have violated ethics and applied this legal concept in an unjustified manner. But the vast majority of officers understand how and when to use stop and frisk in a manner that protects the public, and respects the rights of individuals. Of course there are also plenty of times when it is used in a perfectly justifiable way, and no weapon is found.
Cops work in a world of conflict and violence, and stop and frisk is one tool they use to stay safe in an uncertain, complex and unpredictable world. This is a powerful tool that helps prevent crime. Yet at the same time circumstances do not always turn out to be what they seem and a cop may check the subject only to find he is homeless or emotionally disturbed or as in the case described above, where the subject was talking on a cell phone to a loved one about his financial circumstances that had him upset.
Stop and Frisk is an important for the law enforcement profession. It keeps cops safe when dealing with the unknown. It also lets would-be criminals know if they show certain signs and signals they may be stopped and frisked if circumstances warrant it. There is always a balancing act between protection and privacy. If you put too much weight on either side, bad things can happen. Law enforcement has used Stop and Frisk for decades and despite its use, crime still happens and cops still get injured and killed. Taking this option off the table would only create more chaos and dangerous circumstances on the street. Review the cases as they unfold and when complaints come in. Train those who don’t understand the procedure. Understand that the dynamics of the street are uncertain and that every stop and frisk that fails to turn up weapons is not a violation of someone’s rights, but instead a judgment in difficult circumstances that ended peacefully. If you find clear cut violations of this rule, use the disciplinary proceedings afforded to your agency to stop the behavior of those who would intentionally abuse their power as cops. But do not take away this valuable tool that keeps cops and citizens safe.