Dante M. Taylor was raised to respect the police “100 percent.” That was what was expected of him as a kid growing up religious and conservative in Philadelphia, especially since his grandmother worked as a crossing guard.
Civility was encouraged not just for decorum’s sake, but because it could very well save his life as a Black man. “We knew we needed to be mindful of how we act, how we presented ourselves, and how we spoke,” Taylor, who is 41, told The Daily Beast.
Even that didn’t always help. In the late 1990s, a bike cop frisked Taylor as he stood on the street talking to his friend. Taylor felt the officer’s hands dig deep into his pockets; he swatted them away and then spent a night in jail for resisting.
A few years later, he moved to the Bronx. One day he bought a cheap cigar at a bodega, and noticed a group of men following him for five blocks. They were NYPD, and suddenly threw him up against the wall and searched him, falsely alleging that Taylor had purchased a blunt. The cops did not arrest him, and let him go.
In his thirties, Taylor moved to Los Angeles. He got his masters in African American Studies from UCLA while his partner worked on a doctorate. They shared a faculty apartment. One lazy Sunday morning, Taylor settled in to watch football. He noticed a white man who did not live in the building blocking their driveway with his car.
Taylor opened a window and asked the man to move his car; he says the man responded back yelling racist slurs. He closed his window and went back to the game. Ten minutes later, police were knocking on Taylor’s door. The man in the car had falsely accused Taylor of instigating a fight and throwing a candle at him.
So inside of Taylor’s own building, a cop told him he was under arrest. Taylor was handcuffed, while still wearing his boxers. “I said, please let me put some clothes on at least,” Taylor recalled. “A police officer went in my house, grabbed my bathrobe, and threw it over my shoulders like I’m James Brown leaving the stage.”
The cops took Taylor outside. He was able to talk his way out of the arrest—there was no broken candle in sight. His handcuffs were removed and the police left just as quickly as they came. No apology was given.
“They left me standing there with my bathrobe slumped over my boxers and slides on a Sunday morning,” Taylor said.
Taylor understands his rights. At the time, he was a UPenn graduate working at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Now he studies at Howard Law. He knows that anyone can refuse police searches and calmly walk away from an officer if he’s not under arrest. But that’s easier said than done.
“I feel threatened and bullied by [cops],” Taylor said. “There’s not always this knowledge that you have a right to give consent, and it’s very difficult to not give consent in a situation where you literally fear for your right, or you fear the fact that this could turn into something so much larger [if you refuse].”
That experience echoes with many #MeToo experiences. After a deluge of women came forward with stories of sexual abuse and misconduct, more people began to understand that consent is not as explicit as many would like to believe.
In a new book, A Feminist Critique of Police Stops, Howard Law professor Josephine Ross argues those same blurred lines apply to stop-and-frisks.
Ross began her career as a public defender in Worcester Massachusetts; as a white woman she’s never had uncomfortable encounters with the police.
“I have never gotten a traffic ticket even though I am not a good driver,” she said. “I’ll just say, ‘Sorry, officer,’ and be polite and I’m seen as someone that is not really the type of person that should have their car rifled through, or their dogs brought in to search.”
While working at Howard (a historically Black college), Ross led Know Your Rights seminars at Youth Court, educating teenagers who were arrested for petty crimes on laws that can protect them during police stops.
One day, a young man at one of those trainings—he could not have been more than 16—pulled her aside. He had been stopped by police a lot, he said. But the last time he was frisked, “it felt like rape.”
The teen asked: “What do I do?” Ross didn’t have an answer for him. “That was so troubling to me,” she admitted.
There is no shortage of case studies for Ross to pull through in her book; she uses stories from students who were victims of stop-and-frisk in New York City during Michael Bloomberg’s time as mayor.
According to the ACLU, instances of stop-and-frisk peaked at 700,000 stops in 2011, and most of the victims were Black and Latino. In 2012, a set of class action cases found the policy unconstitutional.
Still, the NYCLU reported 10,000 stops in 2019, and the organization “believes the actual number of stops is considerably higher because officers are failing to document many stops.”
One of Ross' students, a Latino man named Gabriel, spoke in the book about an incident that occurred in 2012, when he was 20. While walking home with groceries, a cop “came up really quickly” on the street and began frisking him.
“He pulled on my underwear, which felt weird... he pulled the elastic out and let it snap into place,” Gabriel recalled.
One LGBTQ youth leader named Trina told Ross about a night when she was 17, standing on a street in the West Village before a party. A female officer asked for Trina’s ID, which still used her deadname. “She kept calling me a man and a faggot,” Trina said.
The cop asked to see the inside of Trina’s bag; she didn’t realize she had a right to refuse the search. The officer found two condoms in Trina’s bag and used them to justify a prostitution charge. Trina was put in a male prison.
“This is my story, but this is also the story of many of my friends,” Trina would say in later testimony.
Ross also puts the last moments of Eric Garner, who was killed when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold, into a larger context. Seven years before his death in 2015, Garner had filed a civil suit against a different officer who performed a public strip search on him during a pedestrian stop. Garner wrote that the officer “[dug] his fingers into my rectum in the middle of the street.”
Just before Pantaleo’s fatal chokehold, Garner pleaded with the cops, “I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. Please, please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me.”
“Who can blame Mr. Garner for wishing not to be touched?” Ross writes. “In Mr. Garner’s case, the history was close to home because the prior sexual abuse was at the hands of an officer.”
Ross told The Daily Beast that she has faced criticism for comparing police searches to sexual abuse, even though stop-and-frisks would legally be considered an assault if committed by anyone who didn’t have a badge.
“There is a general attitude among white people in particular that police are there to protect us, and the idea of them offending our bodily integrity is problematic for a lot of feminists who had thought of police being on their side,” Ross said. “The people who intrude on our bodily integrity are supposed to be unknown men, or men who choose violence, or domestic abusers.”
But in the past decade, viral videos showing the shooting of unarmed Blacks people have forced many to rethink that assumption.
“My worry is that the focus has been so much on the police killings, which are important,” Ross said. “But we’re missing a very important part of the picture, which is the everyday indignities. There is a real link between police killings and what happens in terms of the abuse of power that happens everyday and is sanctioned by the law.”
Frisking by cops should be brief and non-intrusive, and, while a universal policing standard does not exist around it, a series of legal cases— summarized here by Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute—have established the parameters of best practice.
On paper at least, frisking is strictly defined by the NYPD’s Patrol Guide: “A frisk, performed primarily to ensure the personal safety of the arresting officer, is a methodical external body examination of the arrested person conducted immediately after apprehension to find weapons, evidence, or contraband. The frisk should be conducted before or immediately after the subject is rear handcuffed, depending on particular circumstances, temperament of the subject, and escape potential.
“A thorough external body examination is made by sliding the hand over the subject’s body, feeling for weapons or other objects, with a special attention to the waistband, armpit, collar, and groin areas. If an unusual object is detected, the officer will reach into or under the clothing to remove it.
“Individuals may not be targeted for stop and frisks because they are members of a racial or ethnic group that appears more frequently in local crime suspect data. Race may only be considered when the stop is based upon a specific and reliable suspect description that includes not just race, age, and gender, but other identifying characteristics and information.”
Ross is not against all searches, she just believes that police should need probable cause to believe that someone is armed. Right now, all a cop needs is “reasonable suspicion” that a crime is being committed. Most often, that crime is petty marijuana offenses—and that does not seem worthy of violently searching a young person’s private parts.
Ross said that there is no reason for police officers to touch people's breasts or groin, and if the officer has already put their arms against a wall then they have removed the chance of a threat and there's no reason to touch them more. “The current practice of frisking groins should be replaced in most instances by no frisk at all,” she said.
Sexually violent cops, Ross said, speak more to the culture of policing than any individual’s personal gratification. “It is considered to be dangerous when police are not the one in control of a situation,” she said. “When police initiate an encounter in a stop and frisk, they have to come out on top, and show who is in control. So to some extent, this is written into what it means to be a police officer in the US. They’re saying, ‘You don’t belong here. We’re the ones in power, and you don’t belong in our society, or in my neighborhood.’”
In the early 2000s, Ross’ wife—a white woman—was driving the couple’s “slightly beat up” car through their Massachusetts town. It was dark outside when a cop pulled her over. “He got to my wife’s window, and he took one look at her and said, ‘Oh, sorry.’ Then he let her go.”
Ross believes the cop assumed the driver of the car probably lived in a nearby housing project. “But he didn’t see his mission as controlling the more affluent people, or the homeowners, of that small town in Massachusetts.”
And ultimately, Ross believes that “stop-and-frisk is a method of controlling a population that is offensive” to police officers, and the white society they were set up to protect.
“[These searches] do not serve the people,” Ross said. “What they do is create humiliation, a sense of us versus them, fear, and trauma. It ends up making people not trust their government or take part in the democratic process. That should not be the goal of policing, and I think abolishing stop-and-frisk goes a long way to re-imaging what policing is and should be.”
Even though the students in Ross’ Know Your Rights courses are taught that they do not have to consent to searches, most are afraid that saying this could anger a cop. “There is this notion that people can just say, no I don’t feel like cooperating today, and the officer will say, OK, have a very good day. That is magical thinking,” she said.
Taylor, the law student, will help Ross teach her book to her class this semester. He says he dreamed of being a lawyer as a child and grew up idolizing Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. “People who used the legal system in ways to change the reality of those who do not have the power or knowledge to change it,” as he put it.
Even though Taylor wants to be an advocate for others, it’s difficult to be one for himself when dealing with law enforcement. “I’ll never not be nervous when I see police officers,” he said.