Baltimore police ditch 'stop and frisk' term, but not practice

Baltimore Police are doing away with use of the term “stop and frisk,” though officers will continue to be able to use the controversial search tactic.

Baltimore’s Deputy Police Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said that national controversy over the New York Police Department’s heavy use of the practice has led to a negative connotation from which police must distance themselves.

“Anybody in any department that would keep that name, in my opinion, would be remiss,” Rodriguez said in a recent interview.

“Stop and frisk” is the informal term used to describe a police search of a citizen when an officer has reasonable suspicion that the person is armed and “presently dangerous.” They’re also known as “Terry stops,” referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that such searches were not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

At the height of the department’s zero-tolerance policing strategy a decade ago, Baltimore police also faced scrutiny over the practice, though its use has been scaled back as arrests dropped amid a shift toward more targeted enforcement.

The prevalence of the tactic in New York has met with heavy criticism, and a federal judge found police there to have used stop and frisk in a way that violated the constitutional rights of minorities.

New York police have said the a technique was crucial to driving down murders there to historic lows, but voters there last week elected a stop-and-frisk critic in the Democratic primary.

City police say they’ll now refer to the interactions as “investigative stops,” dropping the word “frisk” altogether from forms officers are required to fill out after having contact with citizens. The change in name doesn’t come with any new instruction for officers on how and when to perform the stops.

“Do we stop people? We stop people. Do we frisk individuals? We frisk individuals. [But] ‘stop and frisk,’ the way it has been rendered in a decision in New York, is not a tactic that we use here,” Rodriguez said. “We’re changing the name because of the negative connotation.”

Edward T. Norris, the former Baltimore police commissioner who was a deputy commissioner in New York City, lamented how much the tide had turned against what he believes is a useful and lawful tactic.

“I think it’s a big mistake to start shying away from basic police tactics that have been proven to work and changing the name,” said Norris, who now hosts a Baltimore radio show. “You give a bad connotation to something perfectly legal and within the rights of police officers to protect people in one of the most dangerous cities in the country.”

But professor Gloria Browne-Marshall, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police need to look deeper at whether they are using such stops correctly. 

“No matter what they change the name to, if its based on racial profiling and the idea that certain people commit more crimes than others and should be stopped indiscriminately, it’s not just an issue of New York creating bad karma for a phrase,” Browne-Marshall said. “New York’s lawsuit just brought the behavior to the national eye.”

The Baltimore Police Department is required by law to submit reports on every stop and frisk to the state police, who say police sent 422 such reports between August 2012 through July 2013.

The department’s tracking of such stops has been questioned in the past. In 2005, police had reported only 11 such stops in 12 months as internal figures showed the number was in the thousands, including one estimate showing there had been as many as 130,000 over the course of nine months.

In the calendar year 2010, city police statistics show officers conducted 234 stop-and-frisks, 207 in 2011, and 249 in 2012 through August 2012.

Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore City Democrat, said that whatever name they use for it, police stop too many people without justification.

“If you talk to people around the city, especially young black men, they will tell you that police stop them on the street and say, ‘Hey, what’ve you got on you, do you have drugs? Do you have ID?’” Carter said. “That’s a misuse of police powers. … It’s a fishing expedition to find crime and criminalize people.”

Rodriguez said Baltimore officers follow state law, found under criminal code 4-206, that allows officers to stop and pat down people who the officer has a “reasonable belief may be wearing, carrying or transporting a handgun.”

“The way we do it here,” Rodriguez said, “there has to be a furtherance of evidence that leads you to believe they may be armed or may have concealed narcotics on them. … It has to be legally based with probable cause or suspicion.”

Eugene O’Donnell, also a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said stop and frisk is generally misunderstood. He said Baltimore’s move to change the term strikes him as a “corporate” decision.

“Police departments are adopting corporate culture and political messaging,” he said. “It’s almost like polling — you find out this is negative, so you find another term.”


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