Tuesday, February 21, 2012

NYPD Stop and Frisk Program Disproportionate Impact on Communities of Color

Earlier this week, the New York Civil Liberties Union issued a press release announcing the results of its most recent analysis of NYPD street stops. The NYCLU has been tracking the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program since 2002, when the Department first began collecting data on the controversial practice. During this period, the NYCLU reports, the number of documented street encounters increased 603 percent, from 97,296 in 2002 to 684,330 in 2011. In case the numbers aren’t sufficiently compelling, NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman offers a provocative metaphor: “Last year alone, the NYPD stopped enough totally innocent New Yorkers to fill Madison Square Garden more than 30 times over.” Consider this a somber counterpoint to the “Linsanity” currently sweeping the city.

Of course, the total number of stops doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, it’s the story that’s not being told that warrants the most scrutiny. The numbers don’t tell a story of stops involving whites, Asians, or Native Americans—eighty seven percent of stops in 2011 involved blacks or Latinos, despite the fact that these groups together comprise only fifty two percent of the city’s population. Nor do they tell a story of stops protecting the public from incipient crimes—eighty eight percent of all documented stops since 2002 have resulted in no arrests or summonses. Nor, for that matter, do they even tell a complete story—the stop-and-frisk database is famously plagued by inaccurate reporting, and the statistics can’t even begin to measure the impact of aggressive policing on police-community relations. Every now and again, an essay or op-ed article reminds us of the distinctly personal consequences of routine stop-and-frisks, but by and large, the public equates “police misconduct” with “police brutality.” The veritable epidemic of stops involving blacks and Latinos consistently flies under the radar.

Beyond raising critical issues of civil liberties and civil rights, the stop-and-frisk program creates an environment of mutual suspicion and, for the communities affected, competing impulses to defiance and resignation. Defiance finds expression in protests, online dissemination of videos labeled “NYPD brutality,” and refusals to submit to police authority—whether through non-compliance with an order to “stop” or through claims of ignorance when questioned about a crime. Resignation, for its part, often takes the form of parents raising their children to anticipate police encounters—admonishing them to carry identification and keep their hands out of their pockets—and young people of color growing to expect frisks upon sighting a patrol car or one of the ubiquitous dark-colored sedans that signals the arrival of a plainclothes unit. There may be an estimated eight hundred languages extant in New York, but the non-verbal communication of a drawn firearm or a pat-down is understood by all.

Admittedly, the issue is more complicated than the numbers or the well-worn anecdotes suggest. The NYPD contends that the disproportionate impact of stop-and-frisk on communities of color is attributable to the generally high levels of violent crime in certain neighborhoods (e.g., Crown Heights, East New York, Jamaica, etc.) that happen to house large populations of blacks and Latinos. In this view, stop-and-frisk is a proactive approach to law enforcement—one that focuses on early intervention rather than post-crime investigation—and the NYCLU’s focus on the percentage of civilians released without criminal sanctions is misleading. Indeed, if it’s true that officers are stopping crimes before they occur, then in the vast majority of cases there would be no basis for charging the “suspect.” Moreover, the NYPD points out, in many cases communities want the police presence. The Trespass Affidavit Program, under which landlords authorize the police to question suspected trespassers in private residential buildings, attests to this fact. Perhaps most compellingly, the NYPD argues, policing is a verifiably dangerous job, and we don’t want officers’ hands to be bound when they sincerely believe they’re at risk. Frisks are a self-protective measure that’s minimally invasive and, ideally, used sparingly.

The problem is, statistically and anecdotally, stops and frisks seem to be rather discretionary. According to the most recent statistics published by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent agency tasked with overseeing the NYPD, between January and June 2011, 31.3% of all complaints involved at least one allegation of question, stop, frisk and/or search. Under New York law, officers do have broad authority to question civilians suspected of engaging in criminal activity, and, assuming they can articulate a legitimate basis for believing that the civilian was in possession of a weapon, to perform limited self-protective frisks. See People v. De Bour, 40 N.Y.2d 210 (1976). However, not only are these powers fairly tightly circumscribed, but they decidedly do not permit searches of a civilian’s person or possessions—one of the most common allegations investigated by the CCRB. Furthermore, the CCRB’s data is entirely dependent on civilian reporting, and is therefore necessarily incomplete. Like the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk numbers, they paint only a partial picture of life under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Stop and frisk is a complicated, and deeply divisive, issue. This piece hasn’t even touched on the practice of questioning civilians in New York public housing developments (in 2010, the CCRB issued a recommendation to the NYPD for retraining of its officers on legal standards), or the breakdown of stops by borough, neighborhood, and Precinct. The bottom line is: This is a conversation that needs to continue year-round, not simply when the newest data is released. 

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