Today’s “stop and frisk” practices stem from centuries of legal control of Africans in America. Colonial laws were drafted specifically to control Africans, enslaved and free. Slave catchers culled the woods in search of those Africans who dared escape. After slavery ended, “Black Codes” or criminal laws were enacted to ensnare African Americans, including the sinister convict-lease system that existed well into the twentieth century. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to extend police authority to stop and frisk during the Civil Rights Movement.

Police abuse of stop and frisk has led to tens of millions of people detained and searched by police. In 2011 alone, 685,724 persons were stopped and searched by the New York City Police Department (NYPD). More than 4 million incidents of stop and frisk have taken place in New York City since 2002. African Americans have been disparately ensnared in this practice. Black and Latino communities continue to be the primary targets of stop and frisk. Nearly nine out of ten victims of the practice in New York City are completely innocent.

Abuse of stop and frisk is a civil rights issue as well as a criminal justice issue. As in Brown v. Board of Education, strategies developed to combat police abuse of stop and frisk authority must include the psychological consequences of this state-sanctioned intrusion. Legal arguments need to address how these debasing police practices are psychologically damaging to men, women, and children. As in the colonial times, the greatest burden is borne by African Americans.


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