An man is stopped by undercover police officer in New York on July 18, 2007.

© 2007 Reuters

Today’s federal court ruling that the “stop and frisk” tactics of the New York Police Department (NYPD) violate the constitutional rights of minorities confirms what the data has been showing for years. Between 1996 and 2010, 86 percent of people “stopped and frisked” by the NYPD were African-American or Latino, even though they represented 52 percent of the population. Such stark racial disparities raise serious human rights concerns, and fit a wider pattern of racial discriminationin the context of US drug law enforcement throughout the US.

In order to find a violation of US constitutional law, US courts have long required a finding of actual intent to discriminate, as federal Judge Shira A. Sheindlin did in herrulingtoday. Under international human rights law, prohibited racial discrimination occurs where there is an unjustifiable disparate impact on a racial or ethnic group, regardless of whether there is any intent to discriminate against that group. The human rights law standard is the better one, since it would have stopped New York’s harmful practices years ago. 

New York’s stop and frisk is also wrong on policy grounds. According to New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, the stated purpose of “stop and frisk” is to end violent crime, and to “take weapons off the street.” However, since a far larger number of people are stopped for alleged marijuana offenses than for guns, according to the NYCLU, it’s clear that also at play is the theory that people involved in low-level drug offenses are likely to commit ever-more-serious crimes. The notion is that the stops will deter or prevent future crime and, if they lead to arrests, that the fingerprints and other identifying information captured will help police solve future crimes. Human Rights Watch questioned that theory with our 2012 report, “A Red Herring,” where our data analysis revealed that New York City residents whose first criminal justice contacts are for marijuana possession rarely become dangerous felons in the future. Our data shows that the police mostly sweep large numbers of young people of color into New York City’s criminal justice system who do not subsequently engage in violent crime.

Sheindlin didn’t stop “stop and frisk” but she did insist on robust oversight in the future. The NYPD should reconsider the practice, which does little to prevent violent crimes and, if it is retained at all, ensure it does not have discriminatory intent or effect.