By Sasha Fernandez
Local D.C. police reform advocate Valerie Wexler is on a mission to end police from indiscriminately stopping and frisking civilians for weapons.
She has just one problem: this tactic is already illegal.
“It’s been this process of us, and many other organizers throughout D.C., of just trying to get D.C. police to admit that stop and frisk happens,” she said.
Wexler is part of a movement of local advocates calling for stricter reforms of police stop-and-frisk tactics, after an ACLU analysis of D.C. police stop data found that from July through December 2019, Black residents accounted for 72% of the 63,000 documented stops, despite making up 46.5% of the District’s population.
“This is just a completely ineffective practice, along with being incredibly traumatizing and exposing people to huge amounts of violence, it just doesn’t work,” Wexler said.
This data comes from one of the sole forms of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s stop policy — the 2016 Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. The law, which was passed by the City Council, requests that police maintain detailed data of the stops. However, police officials went years without collecting and publishing the data. The D.C. ACLU sued for it, and the court ruled in their favor in June 2019.
While the D.C. Council made changes to policing by passing an emergency reform bill this summer, it did not touch stops and protective pat downs — it only focused on consensual searches where citizens are not detained, but elect to be frisked.
Rules for Police Stops
The D.C. rules on police stops are based on a national, Supreme Court ruling of the Terry stop; police are allowed to detain an individual when they have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime. If the officer believes the person is carrying a weapon, they can do a protective pat down, or a “frisk” to check.
Reasonable suspicion, the litmus test that police conduct before detaining someone, can be based on a number of factors including the time of day, the neighborhood, and their behavior. If the person is acting nervously, or if it is a time of the day and neighborhood associated with high crime, police consider this sufficient evidence for a stop, according to the D.C. Justice Lab report.
In D.C., the policy of stopping an individual because of reasonable suspicion to search them is known as a stop and protective pat down — not a stop and frisk.
In this instance, language matters. The term stop-and-frisk refers to the New York policy where the police department disproportionately stopped minority residents, infringing their fourth amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. The policy was deemed unconstitutional in a 2013 local court ruling.
Greggory Pemberton, the chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said in an interview that calling the District police tactic “stop-and-frisk” is a “misnomer.” He said MPD stops residents for criminal violations rather than as a blanket policy for screening for unlawful behavior, as it was used in New York.
The pat downs are not without fault. The local ACLU filed a Jan. lawsuit against D.C. after a citizen said that they were sexually assaulted during a search. The lawsuit is ongoing, according to an interview with Strategic Communications Director Suzanne Ito.
As for claims that D.C. police are disproportionately stopping Black people, Pemberton said that officers patrol areas that are usually more impoverished with higher crime rates, and in the district, these neighborhoods, particularly Southeast D.C., are predominantly Black.
“When police go to those areas, they’re going to be more likely to develop reasonable suspicion because there’s more of that activity there,” he said.
Kurt Vorndran, a member of the D.C. Police Complaints Board and a commissioner on the Police Reform Commission, said in an interview that this rationale for stopping people
“If the police are doing the stops based on reports of crime, that would be a defensible action on their part,” Vorndran said. ”But we want to look at the whole picture.”
Unlike many police departments, D.C. police have been monitored before, according to Pemberton. The Metropolitan Police Department was one of the first departments to be scrutinized in a multi-year investigation by the Department of Justice. This investigation came after the department was documented using excessive force against its residents.
Pemberton said that despite years of federal oversight from the DOJ, advocates have compared MPD to police forces involved in the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kent., and George Floyd in Minneapolis. Pemberton said that the comparison is “frustrating” and “offensive.”
“We’re not Louisville and we’re not Minneapolis,” he said. “The reason we’re not is because we’ve been trying to get ahead of the curve and make sure that our officers have the most up to date training, that they’re behaving in a way that respects life and tries every possible mechanism and avenue that they have to avoid using force.”
Pemberton said that jump out tactics —where officers randomly stop, pat down and “harass” civilians without reasonable suspicion — have “never been a thing.”
Patrice Sulton, director of the criminal and legal justice policy non-profit D.C. Justice Lab, said that this conflicts with first person accounts she has heard from local residents.
Sulton said that the path forward is through more legislation.
“We need more specific details on what officers are not allowed to do, and we want the council to put in place some things that will really get [police] to stop doing this,” she said.