Josh Cantu

The 1968 Terry v. Ohio case established the legality of the Terry Stop, which is commonly known as the “stop and frisk.” The Terry Stop allows a police officer to stop someone and search them for weapons. Terry, the defendant in the case, was stopped and searched for weapons by a police officer because the officer thought that Terry was acting suspiciously. During the search, the officer found a gun (Terry v. Ohio). This is a type of surveillance because any pedestrian can be stopped and searched by a police officer if they are deemed to be “suspicious.”

The definition of “suspicious” is not always clear in Terry Stops. Often, law enforcement officers are left in the dark about what constitutes suspicious activity. One New York officer complained, “We are trained how to make stops, not when to make them” (Fagan & Geller, 2015, p. 57). When there is no real, set in stone definition of “suspicious,” a lot is left up to the judgment of the officer. What he sees as trying to prevent crime and keep the public safe, an onlooker can interpret as racist and malicious. In a study of the New York City Police Department (Gelman, Fagan, & Kiss, 2007) fopund, “blacks were stopped 23% more often than whites and Hispanics were stopped 39% more often than whites” (p. 822). This disparity supports arguments about racial bias in Terry Stops. The Terry Stop is likely to remain controversial due it’s lack of definition of “suspicion.”


Fagan, J., & Geller, A. (2015). Following the script: Narratives of suspicion in Terry Stops in street policing. University of Chicago Law Review 82(1), 51-88.

Gelman, A., Fagan, J., & Kiss, A. (2007). An analysis of the New York City Police Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policy in the context of claims of racial bias. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 102(479), 813-823. doi:10.1198/016214506000001040

Terry v. Ohio. (1968). Retrieved from: https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/392/1.html


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Key Concepts in Surveillance Studies Copyright © 2019 by Josh Cantu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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