Search statistics questioned


I read your recent editorial on the subject of random street searches. You imply that the police have the authority to "stop-and-frisk" people on the street because they "look suspicious" or because they (the police) have a "hunch" that they are criminals. Nothing could be further from the case.

For their own protection, police may perform a quick surface search of the person's outer clothing for weapons if they have reasonable suspicion that the person stopped is armed. This reasonable suspicion must be based on "specific and articulable facts" and not merely upon an officer's hunch as you suggest.

This permitted police action is often referred to as a "Terry stop" and is authorized by the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court case of Terry v. Ohio, which held that the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures is not violated when a police officer stops a suspect on the street and searches him without probable cause to arrest, if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

I would be interested in knowing how you or The Associated Press can make the claim that over one million people a year are detained and frisked simply because they might be criminals. What is the evidence to support this claim? How was this figure derived? If the figure is based on actual court cases that were tossed because the police could not point to "specific and articulable facts" to justify their stops then the figure would certainly have validity.

But if, as your editorial seems to suggest, it is based only on the number of stops that did not result in arrests then I question the validity of your claim. That is, the fact that the stop did not result in an arrest proves nothing unless it can be demonstrated that the officer lacked a suspicion based on "specific articulable facts" to justify his or her stop. Otherwise your figure is based on pure speculation.

I am growing weary of reports and studies, especially those coming from organizations with a political agenda and news outlets like the AP, that make conclusory pronouncements without revealing the methodology behind their studies. These sorts of studies usually have absolutely no validity but they do tend to inflame the sentiments of the general population thereby making the work of the police much more difficult and dangerous than it ought to be.

Charles B. Phillips
Walla Walla


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