An NYPD Officer Analyzes the Controversial ‘Stop and Frisk’ Debate
The summer of 2012 has not been kind to U.S. law enforcement officials. As Occupy Wall Street protests subsided, the momentum shifted away from America’s financial sector and toward the long simmering issue of police-community relations.
Spurred on by the Trayvon Martin shooting, many citizens around the nation redirected their protests and rallied against ‘illegal and unwarranted’ stops by the police. The Federal Court in New York City added more public pressure by granting approval of a class-action suit brought against the NYPD for “suspicionless stops and frisks.” The court’s approval of the suit was bolstered by an American Civil Liberties Union study related to stop-and-frisk data collected by the NYPD. The culmination of these incidents has kept the stop-and-frisk on the public’s mind. While protests increase nationwide, academics and media commentators from across the nation have joined the debate.
Officials in New York City have only given a lukewarm response to the mounting criticism against them. As crime numbers perennially peak during summer in the Big Apple, the mayor and the police commissioner are caught in the crossfire from a city outraged by increased violence, yet unnerved by a police force eager to confront criminals in the street. Politicians from both the city and state have joined the chorus demanding action against the rise in felony shootings taking place as the mercury rises.
Instead of addressing concerns based on existing police data, Bloomberg has decided to soft-step the issue while the barbs keep coming. To date, Mayor Bloomberg has only repeated his stance on the stop-and-frisk issue by suggesting the NYPD’s tactics have removed weapons off the streets and saved lives.
On June 10, the mayor visited the First Baptist Full Gospel Church of Brownsville and defended his stop-and-frisk policy. According to the New York Times, Bloomberg stated, “We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives. At the same time, we owe it to New Yorkers to ensure that stops are properly conducted and carried out in a respectful way.” The mayor went on to add, “[B]y making it hot to carry, the NYPD is preventing guns from being carried on our streets. That is our real goal--preventing violence before it occurs, not responding to the victims after the fact.”
Defending New York City’s crime-fighting strategies with great success for many years, Commissioner Raymond Kelly has finally begun to show fatigue. During a city council hearing on public safety, the commissioner finally broke his silence on the issue. “What have you said about how to stop this violence?” Snapped Kelly, “What have the leaders of these communities of color said? What is their tactic and strategy to get guns off the street? I asked you for a solution to the problem of violence in these communities of color. I haven’t heard it…People are upset about being stopped, yet what is the answer?”
Many criminal justice professionals, however, are not convinced. Law Professors Jeffrey Fagan and David Rudovsky point to a minor drop in shootings from 2002 to 2011, (1892 and 1821 respectively) but cite a substantial rise in the number of people stopped in NYC. The professors suggest with fewer than one hundred thousand people stopped in 2002 that “the police are looking for guns in all the wrong places.”
Perhaps the greatest critic of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is the A.C.L.U. Their May 9 press release includes encouraging and easily digestible statistics culled from the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk database. The A.C.L.U. report emerged as the most sound-byte ready statistics for public consumption. Highlights of the stop-and-frisk data include:
*More than 685,000 people were stopped by the NYPD in 2011, up from 97,000 stops in 2002 when Bloomberg took office…more than a 600 percent increase.
*87 percent of those stopped were Black or Hispanic, while 9 percent were White.
* More young Black men were stopped by the NYPD in 2011 than there are young Black men in NYC.
*Only 1.9 percent of those frisked in 2011 were in possession of a weapon.
Following the mayor’s church speech, the New York Times ran an editorial on June 11, 2012 from Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, an attorney representing the class–action petitioners in the civil suit against the city. The counselor’s criticism echoed the A.C.L.U. stating, “If the NYPD stops –and-frisks people to deter crime, rather than based on reasonable suspicion that the person stopped engaged in crime, the stop-and-frisk policy is unconstitutional.”
What The Law Says About Stop-And-Frisks
Looking briefly at both sides of the argument, opinions come easily on the stop-and-frisk issue -- particularly if one resides in an area of higher crime. But does being stopped by the police constitute a claim for a class-action lawsuit? A quick overview of the law may help.
Stop-and-frisk encounters have their legal rooting in the Bill of Rights. The 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been the guiding principle behind government searches and seizures. Namely the 4th Amendment limits police power and protects personal liberties.
In 1968 two court cases outlined standards the government must meet and mandated police officers to have “constitutionally adequate reasonable grounds for conducting searches.” The Terry v. Ohio case discussed in most legal forums is quite popular, but the lesser cited case of Sibron v. New York also has a great bearing on how the police conduct themselves during stop-and-frisk encounters.
Today the Supreme Court still stresses the importance of search warrants when conducting a search; however the court has repeatedly recognized and supported “exceptions” to the 4th amendment. Based on “carefully drawn” circumstances, good faith exceptions (such as an emergency or a police officer’s fear of injury) permit a police officer to frisk a person for a weapon without a warrant. These frisks only apply when an officer has ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the person has engaged in criminal activity.
What causes concern for many is the number of searches and frisks conducted by police across the country. Clearly an alarming number of frisks and arrests take place without warrants leading to the A.C.L.U.’s analysis in New York City, but are the circumstances leading to stop-and-frisks reasonable? For that part of the discussion, ultimately, one has to analyze each situation individually, without bias, and in full view of the larger picture of violent crime. Here is where conjecture dominates the discussion.
Are We Denying Reality?
While the bulk of articles discussing stop-and-frisk scenarios in the U.S. are overwhelming, most reporting relies on anecdotal scenarios, with limited statistical data to support any argument. Most stop-and-frisk tales involve subtle hints of racial profiling and rarely give a well-balanced perspective as to “why” random people are being inconvenienced. But instead of curtailing the volley of criticism, New York’s Mayor Bloomberg continues to dance around the issue. Bloomberg has cautiously avoided a meaningful dialogue on the issue during his final term in office.
In an effort to deflect criticism of rampant profiling in the NYPD, Bloomberg stated, “If we stopped people based on census numbers, we would stop many fewer criminals, recover many fewer weapons, and allow many more violent crimes to take place. We will not do that. We will not bury our heads in the sand.” To illustrate his point, the mayor stated the city would not “deny reality” relating to who we stop-and-frisk. Bloomberg used examples of stopping men versus women or younger people versus the elderly in the pursuit of most violent criminals.
Much of the stop-and-frisk data also denies the reality of the culture within the NYPD. While nobody denies the precipitous rise in stop-and-frisk reports (referred to as UF-250 reports, or 250s within the department), one cannot draw meaningful conclusions from their numbers. Simply put, every employee within the NYPD knows that FAR more people were ‘tossed’ during the highest recorded crime period in New York’s history. On paper, almost 43,000 people were stopped and frisked in 1989 compared to more than 685,000 last year.
The simple fact is, nobody cared to track the data in the old days, so the reports were not completed. Years ago, an investigation by the Civilian Complaint Review Board discovered similar findings. The C.C.R.B. reported only one in 30 encounters resulted in a UF-250 form being prepared. Blaming the police for a rise in unlawful stops based on 250 numbers is as illogical as blaming the increase due to a higher caffeine intake in cops today. After all, coffee franchises in New York City have increased more than 600 percent in recent years too.
During less politically correct times, former police commissioner Howard Safir had a significantly different perspective on the stop-and-frisk issue. According to a December 1, 1999 New York Newsday article, Safir was quoted as saying, “We stop individuals on the street in numbers consistent with the descriptions provided by crime victims.” Commissioner Safir repeated this sentiment on many occasions. It pays to note, though, police-community relations were more strained during the Giuliani administration, and Kelly was hired to ease tensions after the Amadou Diallo/Abner Louima incidents.
But Ray Kelly could deflect far more criticism had he pitched the angle differently. There is an enormous body of data, albeit not fit for politically correct ears, suggesting the police go where the crime goes. After all, policing is a ‘reactive’ industry by nature; despite attempts to be ‘proactive community builders.’ As long as understaffed police departments choose to dispatch cops to 911 calls for service, instead of having officers walk a regular beat and learning about the communities they serve, the job can never be truly proactive. Also, the fact remains that most of America’s 40,000 police departments are not serving densely populated urban areas where ‘the cop on the block’ could even succeed.
Where The Crime Is
One need not be a police chief, an exalted judge, or even possess a Ph.D. in criminal justice to know there is a worldwide connection between crime and poverty. Researchers have spent decades studying the relationship between the two. Most lay persons are aware also, but criminal justice professionals know the connection is not causal. Of course, not all poor people commit violent crime, so research continues.
However, existing data would go a great way toward deflecting criticism against political leaders across the country. A cursory analysis of 911 calls for service would deflect much criticism about the racial breakdown of perpetrators sought by police. Not only does the body of data exist, but the data is recorded and easily available. On the back end, one can analyze existing police reports to see exactly who is wanted for committing violent crimes on America’s streets. To date, most data is not released to the public due to privacy concerns of crime victims and resistance of police agencies.
Understanding the privacy concerns of crime victims, the Department of Justice has collected crime data in an anonymous and empirically respected instrument called the National Crime Victimization Survey. Conducted since 1973, the NCVS is one of the largest continuous surveys conducted by the federal government. The survey obtains information about offenders who commit violent victimizations from the victim who experienced the crime.
The victim is asked to provide information on age, race, and gender of the offender, and other important variables. Variables worth noting are the relationship status of the victim and offender, and if both the victim and/or offender was drunk or on drugs. Much of the same data is collected by police agencies nationally, but is not easily shared, even abstractly. Fortunately, the NCVS data is highly recognized by criminal justice professionals worldwide. The obvious limitation pertaining to the NCVS is that the information is given voluntarily.
Utilizing figures from the NCVS reports, one can learn much about the typical violent offender. For purposes of this article, data on incidents committed by unknown perpetrators have been cited. Robbery statistics are most useful since most violent robberies involve persons unknown to each other. (One cannot thank the Bureau of Justice Statistics enough for their timely assistance and professionalism with regard to the latest data on stranger crimes.)
The Justice Department’s data comes from the 2008 and 2010 surveys. Interesting to note is a 1998 study that specifically looked at 12 cities including New York City. Of the myriad stats and figures, some highlights of the studies include the following:
*In the 12 city study, 84 percent of single offender incidents committed against a Black victim was committed by a Black offender. In NYC, 90 percent of Black victims had black offenders. Four percent of Black victims had White offenders. Nationally, a majority of White victims (55 percent) classified their offenders as non-White or of an undetermined race.
*The percentage of victimizations reported to police remained nearly stable between 2001 and 2010.
*With regard to robberies, 83 percent of male victims listed the offender as a stranger or an unknown person. Fifty-seven percent of women listed the offender as a stranger or an unknown person.
*Households below the poverty line were victims of burglary at a rate more than two times higher than households earning over 75k per year or higher.
*In multiple offender robbery incidents, crime victims reported white offenders 9.9 percent of the time and a Black offender 53 percent. Mixed-raced offenders were reported 15 percent of the time, and 20 percent were of an unknown race.
Is A Solution Possible?
Like most social problems, one needs to accurately pinpoint the cause before fixing it. In the case of stop-and-frisks, many simultaneous initiatives must be implemented in a long-term model. The solutions must involve dedicated input from all the stakeholders in the matter and they need not collaborate for success. Lawmakers, law enforcers, community leaders, and the public must all modify their actions to encourage positive change.
To the credit of New York's mayor, he is already supportive of a new way of moving forward. Borrowing a phrase used by President Clinton, Bloomberg said at the church service, "...I believe the practice needs to be mended, not ended." If any change is to happen, the mayor needs to be more vocal on the issue, instead of taking a hands-off approach and letting public outrage dictate policy.
Today's 'new media' permits anyone with a computer to shape the dialogue and change others’ minds with half-baked facts and misinformation. Editorials, blogs, and other instant media platforms have the power to mobilize the masses in ways politicians are discovering since the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011. Our leaders must learn to be more responsive.
One can argue that gun buyback programs have been widely successful but not widely implemented on a national scale. Ray Kelly says the program has collected 7,600 guns since 2006. By comparison, the NYPD seized 780 guns last year, but the bulk of the seizures were through more lengthy and costly drug investigations.
Community leaders can continue to address the more serious issues of violence in the inner cities. In NYC, local ministers and community activists have become outraged about guns and violence on the street. A recent daytime shooting of a 3-year-old on a Brooklyn playground has redirected recent rhetoric away from police stops and toward illegal guns.
By showing focused leadership and building positive connections, community leaders can assist greatly with the disconnect between cops and residents. By speaking out about violence and the disproportionate levels of crime in poorer communities, residents can learn to trust and depend on the police instead of viewing cops as an occupying army. Too many community organizations scrutinize the police instead of criticizing the criminals undermining their quality of life. After all, criminals are a far greater threat to the well-intentioned then cops are.
The most effective way to reduce crime is by removing the criminals. Social programs also work, but they require long-term dedication and resources to be most effective. When a community has armed felons engaged in violent criminal enterprises, social programs have missed their mark. By having a justice system fail to remove criminals, all of society is jeopardized. Judges across the nation, and specifically in New York City, deserve to treat their communities better and enforce existing penalties. Stronger sentences for violent offenders and higher bail would selectively remove criminals and decrease future criminal incidents. More importantly, fewer incidents would lead to fewer stop-and-frisks.
Finally, the police need to radically change how street encounters are conducted. If a police officer routinely pats down every person he stops, then he probably is doing his job poorly -- even if he discovers illegal weapons. The courts have recognized this fact since 1968, but, clearly, bad searches are still conducted.
In many stop-and-frisk encounters, the cops on patrol take time to explain why someone was stopped and even have police dispatchers repeat offender descriptions over their radio. Of course this remedy only works in specific situations. Often, the jarring nature of the stop eliminates all degrees of reason. Existing tensions play a big part too. If a career criminal has been ‘tossed’ and arrested by police hundreds of times, how likely will a courteous conversation take place? Likewise, is it reasonable to expect the tone of the police officer to be of the same reverence toward the career criminal as it is with a community elder? Working in a vacuum, things would be different, but as humans, emotions must be factored into the situation.
While both the police and the community strive to co-exist in a civil and stress-free environment, violent situations certainly affect the outcome. Taken as a whole, this does not permit the police to circumvent the rights of the individual. Likewise, if a police officer is following the mandated rules, then he should be supported. It’s important to remember the courage and sacrifice America’s law enforcement officers endure to protect life and liberty. Also worth noting is the fact that as violent crime has seen historic lows, rising numbers of police officers are being killed and injured while stopping violent criminals on the street.
Eugene Durante is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. He is a Police Officer and former Welfare Fraud Investigator. Born in Brooklyn, Durante is a fourth-generation resident of Coney Island. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.