As a frequent traveler, I can understand the outrage over new TSA security procedures. A “choice” between an ultra-revealing body scan, a scandalously intrusive pat-down, or not traveling by air, ever, is no choice at all. And for those of us who travel internationally, the frustration is compounded by the knowledge that other countries use less invasive and, often, smarter approaches. Given the effective alternatives that seem to be available, law professor Jeffrey Rosen and others may be correct in arguing that the new TSA policy violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
Still, I’m reserving my outrage for a situation that involves greater intrusion and even less choice. Just last month, an expert report released by the Center for Constitutional Rights found that the New York Police Department has stopped and frisked tens of thousands of New Yorkers without legal justification, and that the victims of these illegal searches are overwhelmingly Black and Latino.
The study analyzed six years of the NYPD’s own data, controlling for factors like neighborhood crime rates, social conditions, and allocation of police resources. Among its findings:
- Nearly half of all documented stops were explained by the vague justification “furtive movements,” while only 15% cited “fits relevant description.”
- Controlling for other relevant factors, race emerged as the main factor determining NYPD stops.
- Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped than Whites, even in areas with low crime rates, where populations are diverse or mostly White.
- Nearly 150,000 stops over a six-year period were facially unconstitutional and without legal justification.
- Less than 6% of all stops led to arrests—a “hit rate” that is lower than for random check points. And the rate of gun seizures is almost zero.
If you’ve ever been stopped and frisked by the police, you know that the stress, rough treatment, and potential for catastrophe can make the new airport pat-downs feel like a trip to the spa. And, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, Black and Latino New Yorkers were more likely to have force used against them, and more likely to be arrested rather than issued a summons as compared with White suspects accused of the same crimes.
While the new TSA procedures have been decried by politicians in oversight hearings and speeches, there’s been mostly deafening silence from political leaders on the NYPD search allegations. I suppose that’s not surprising. But maybe the firestorm over scanners and pat-downs can lead to greater empathy over racial profiling and unjustified police stops that happen all too often around the country. Maybe.