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Police History: How Detective Martin McFadden became the father of stop and frisk

The Supreme Court recognized that although police would need probable cause to make an arrest, a different standard existed for an officer to make an investigative stop short of an arrest

A historical marker stands at the scene of an arrest made by legendary Cleveland Police Department Hall of Fame Detective Martin McFadden. McFadden was a 38-year veteran when his actions on the job triggered an 8-1 Supreme Court decision officially sanctioning the law enforcement tactic called stop and frisk.

McFadden joined the Cleveland Police Department in 1925 and was shortly promoted to detective. He was considered an expert in criminal tricks and tactics and gave presentations on how to avoid becoming a victim of criminals as well as how to catch them.

McFadden’s knowledge and experience was cited as a factor in the landmark 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio. The Supreme Court sanctioned the stop-and-frisk policy as a proactive policing tool for officers as long as officers followed the example of Detective McFadden.

The Arrest of John W. Terry

On October 31, 1963, Detective McFadden — a 62-year-old seasoned veteran at the time — spotted three men whose suspicious behavior caught his attention. The three did not notice the plainclothesman on foot across the street as he stopped and began an impromptu surveillance of them.

McFadden first noticed 31-year-old John W. Terry, 32-year-old Richard Chilton and later 49-year-old Carl Katz at the corner of Huron and Euclid in Cleveland. He watched as Chilton and Terry alternately walked up to a United Airlines storefront and looked in the window, then returned to the corner to converse with the group.

McFadden continued to observe as the men repeated this pattern often enough to convince him that the three were casing the store with the intention to rob it. He decided he would not stand by and just let it happen. He knew from experience that people die in robberies.

Stop and Frisk

This was the time before portable walk units — there was no radioing for backup — so Detective McFadden was on his own.

He approached the three men, identified himself as a police officer and ordered them to keep their hands out of their pockets. He asked the men to identify themselves; instead of answering, Terry mumbled something unintelligible.

Terry’s response only heightened McFadden’s concern, so he quickly spun Terry around and frisked his outer clothing, positioning Terry’s body as a barrier between himself and the other two men because he was certain Terry was armed. McFadden felt what he knew to be a pistol in Terry’s coat but was unable to remove it immediately.

McFadden ordered the three men into a nearby store and had them turn away from him and put their hands up. The detective slid off Terry’s overcoat and removed a Beretta semi-automatic pistol with six rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber.

With Terry disarmed, McFadden then frisked the outer clothing of both Chilton and Katz and directed the store employee to call the police for backup.

McFadden felt a pistol in Chilton’s his coat pocket also. After feeling the pistol, he reached into the pocket and removed the .38 caliber revolver loaded with five rounds. During the frisk of Katz he felt no weapons and thus did not reach into any pockets.

Chilton and Terry were each charged with carrying a concealed weapon. A critical point in the subsequent Supreme Court decision was the fact that Detective McFadden only frisked the outer clothing of the suspects and did not reach into any pockets until he felt the weapons.

The SCOTUS Ruling

Terry was found guilty and appealed his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, convinced that he was the victim of police harassment as well as an unreasonable search and seizure. Chilton was killed in a failed robbery attempt several weeks after the incident.

The Supreme Court affirmed Terry’s conviction and praised the actions of Detective McFadden in an 8-1 decision. The Court recognized that although police would need probable cause to make an arrest, a different standard existed for an officer to make an investigative stop short of an arrest. The majority opinion agreed that “reasonable suspicion” that a suspect was committing a crime — or was about to commit a crime — was enough to justify an investigative stop by police.

The court also held that after an investigative stop is legally made and a police officer has reasonable suspicion that a suspect is armed and dangerous, the officer can frisk the suspect’s outer clothing in an attempt to locate a weapon before that weapon can be used against the officer. The court cautioned that reasonable suspicion for both the stop and the frisk must be articulated by officers performing them.

Lasting Impact

Martin McFadden retired from the Cleveland Police Department in 1970 after carrying a badge and gun for 45 years. He died in 1981 of cancer, but his legacy lives on. Stop and frisk continues to serve as a tool for police officers to prevent crimes, as well as save countless police and civilian lives.

Even though stop-and-frisk policies have been assailed by civil rights advocates continually for 41 years, the legality of this technique’s proper use has been upheld repeatedly and even expanded upon. This would not probably surprise McFadden. When the street-smart detective was asked what he thought about the Supreme Court’s decision to affirm his actions, he simply said, “I knew I was right, and I was.”

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.