In Police Pat-Downs, Many Women See Sexual Overtones
Shari Archibald’s black handbag sat at her feet on the sidewalk in front of her Bronx home on a recent summer night. The two male officers crouched over her leather bag and rooted around inside, elbow-deep. One officer fished out a tampon and then a sanitary napkin, crinkling the waxy orange wrapper between his fingers in search of drugs. Next he pulled out a tray of foil-covered pills, Ms. Archibald recalled.
Crystal Pope said she and some female friends had been patted down by officers who said they were searching for a male rapist.
“What’s this?” the officer said, examining the pill packaging stamped “drospirenone/ethinylestradiol.”
“Birth control,” Ms. Archibald remembered saying.
She took a breath and exhaled deeply, hoping the whoosh of air would cool her temper and contain her humiliation as the officers proceeded to pat her down.
The laws governing street stops are blind to gender. Male officers are permitted to frisk a woman if they reasonably suspect that she may be armed with a dangerous weapon that could be used to harm them. A frisk can escalate into a field search if officers feel a suspicious bulge while patting down the woman’s outer layer of clothing or the outline of her purse.
Last year, New York City police officers stopped 46,784 women, frisking nearly 16,000. Guns were found in 59 cases, according to an analysis of police statistics by The New York Times.
While the number of women stopped by officers in 2011 represented 6.9 percent of all police stops, the rate of guns found on both men and women was equally low, 0.12 percent and 0.13 percent, respectively. Civil rights leaders have argued that the low gun-recovery rates are a strong indication that the bulk of stop-and-frisk encounters are legally unjustified. (The number of police stops has dropped by more than 34 percent in recent months.)
When officers conduct stops upon shaky or baseless legal foundations, people of both sexes often say they felt violated. Yet stops of women by male officers can often involve an additional element of embarrassment and perhaps sexual intimidation, according to women who provided their accounts of being stopped by the police. And many incorrectly believe that the police, like Transportation Security Administration officers, are required to have female officers frisk women.