Brian Thiem here to talk about police procedures. Part of an author’s responsibility in the police procedural subgenre of mystery or crime fiction novels is to show readers how real cops do police work.
Despite what we may have heard in the media, in social media, and during political debates, the practice of Stop and Frisk, does not mean cops are free to grab anyone on the street they so desire, throw they against a wall, and search them for guns, drugs, or anything else they might be carrying. I know Stop and Frisk can be a controversial topic, and a lot has been said about the perspective that it presents a challenge to civil liberties, but my experience, I thought I could offer an informed perspective from a law enforcement view.
There are several different levels of interaction a police officer might have with a citizen. The first is a contact. A contact requires no legal basis because it doesn’t infringe on the citizen’s rights. A uniformed police officer who says, “Good morning, sir, how are you?” to someone walking by has initiated a contact. The citizen is free to ignore the officer and continue walking. When I was working as a uniformed officer, I “contacted” numerous citizens during my shift.
The most intrusive level is an arrest. To make an arrest, officers must have probable cause to believe a crime was committed and the person committed the crime. This standard is significantly less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the legal standard for conviction in a court of law.
In between a contact and an arrest is a detention, commonly referred to as a stop. If you just rolled through a stop sign and a police car comes up behind you with its emergency lights on and beeps its siren, you are being “stopped” or detained. You are not free to leave, but the officer can only detain you for as long as is necessary to accomplish the purpose of investigating the traffic violation and, if appropriate, write you a ticket. If an officer gets out of his car next to a group of young people and says, “Hold on a minute; I want to talk to you,” he’s detaining them. We call that a pedestrian stop or simply, a walking stop.
Since a detention takes away a citizen’s freedom, even though it’s for a short period of time, officers must have a valid reason for the stop. The US Supreme Court set forth the legal requirements in a 1968 case, Terry vs. Ohio, which ruled that police could briefly detain an individual for questioning if the officer has a reasonable suspicion the person is engaged in criminal activity.
Human interactions are varied, and the Supreme Court recognized it was impossible to precisely define reasonable suspicion, other than to say it did not amount to the same standard as probable cause, which was the level necessary to make an arrest, but was more than a mere hunch.
The second part of Stop and Frisk is the frisk. Here, courts have ruled that once police had legally detained someone, they could pat the person down for weapons if they believe the person may be armed. Once again, the standard is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is carrying a gun. Officers need not see a gun to frisk the person, but they must have an articulable reason to believe the person may be armed. The courts recognized the inherit dangers in police work and have erred on the side of the police, but have found practices unconstitutional where police routinely search everyone they detain.
So there you have Stop and Frisk in a nutshell. It’s not only legal (when done in accordance with the standard of reasonable suspicion), but is a necessary tool for effective policing and something that Matt Sinclair and his fellow officers do to catch bad guys in my novels.