Unsatisfied, one of the officers searched Floyd, feeling under his shirt and inside his pants pockets. He found nothing illegal. Testifying last week in federal court, Floyd said the incident left him feeling "frustrated (and) humiliated, because it was on my block where I live, and I wasn't doing anything."
Floyd's experience seems to be typical of the 5 million or so street stops recorded by the New York Police Department in the last decade. Police almost never discover guns, and nearly nine times out of 10 they do not make an arrest or even issue a summons. The class action lawsuit that bears Floyd's name persuasively argues that such unjustified harassment of innocent people violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
The legal basis for the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program is supposed to be a 1968 Supreme Court decision arising from a police encounter quite different from the ones described by Floyd and the many other New Yorkers, overwhelmingly black or Latino, who are hassled by cops for no apparent reason every year. The case, Terry v. Ohio, involved a Cleveland detective who saw two men take turns walking back and forth in front of a store, peering into the window, about a dozen times, conferring with each other between trips.
The detective surmised that the two men were casing the store, which they planned to rob along with a third man who joined them later. Confronted by the detective, who asked for their names, the three men "mumbled something," whereupon the officer grabbed one of them and patted down his overcoat, finding a revolver in the breast pocket; one of the other men was also carrying a revolver in his overcoat. The Supreme Court said the detective's actions were consistent with the Fourth Amendment because he reasonably suspected that the men were engaged in criminal activity and that they were armed.
The track record of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program suggests that its officers' suspicions of criminal activity are frequently less than reasonable, since they turn out to be right only 12 percent of the time. That impression is reinforced by the forms that officers fill out after these encounters, which rely heavily on all-purpose excuses such as "furtive movements" and "high crime area" to justify stopping people.