Stop-and-frisk, eviscerated

A U.S. district judge exposes the NYPD's harassment strategy as racist, unconstitutional

Published May 29, 2012 7:30PM (EDT)

 NYPD officers             (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
NYPD officers (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetThis month, a federal judge in New York dealt a blow to “stop-and-frisk,” a policy that resulted in 685,000 recorded police stops in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stopped were African American and Latino, mostly youths.

U.S. district judge Shira Scheindlin granted class-action certification to a stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the city of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The plaintiffs allege that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy regularly violates the Constitution by illegally stopping and searching scores of people belonging to a particular demographic -- black and Latino. Pending the city's appeal, the class-action ruling will put stop-and-frisk on trial.

Plaintiffs in Floyd et al. vs City of New York also argue that they were stopped by police who did not have the legally necessary "reasonable suspicion" that they had committed or were going to commit a crime. What's more, the suit alleges, police often performed frisks, but not because they saw a bulge they suspected to be a weapon, another legal requirement.

In her written decision, Scheindlin said the alleged constitutional violations result not from the actions of rogue officers, but from a policy handed down from the very top. "The stop-and-frisk program is centralized and hierarchical," said Scheindlin. "Those stops were made pursuant to a policy that is designed, implemented and monitored by the NYPD's administration."

Scheindlin's ruling cites "overwhelming evidence" -- a spike in stop-and-frisks and the NYPD's own words -- indicating that at the "highest levels of the department" police are enforcing a policy that leaves behind a trail of daily injustices.

For years, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly have used distortions and misinformation to promote and justify a policy that violates the constitutional rights of those who were stopped. Now, the Scheindlin findings have exposed the NYPD game for what it is, an illegal system of quotas and racial profiling imposed on field police from the top of the NYPD.

"Suspicionless stops should never occur," Scheindlin wrote in her decision, adding that, "Defendants' cavalier attitude towards the prospect of a 'widespread practice of suspicionless stops' displays a deeply troubling apathy towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional rights." Stop-and-frisk, which the data shows is a form of racial profiling, violates not only the Fourth Amendment -- protection from unreasonable searches -- but also the 14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection clause, the plaintiffs charge.

The Scheindlin decision was informative and comprehensive, including a number of important facts and observations. Here are eight important points from the decision.

1. Soaring numbers. The rate of stops has grown exponentially under the Bloomberg administration. Scheindlin's ruling notes that police conducted 2.8 million documented stops of people between 2004 and 2009, about half of whom were frisked. In contrast, in 1998, Scheindlin explains, NYPD officers made roughly 150,000 stops per year. In 2004 alone, officers recorded more than 313,000 stops, "and since then the number has increased every year except 2007, rising to over 684,000 in 2011." Scheindlin cites the large increase as evidence of a centralized policy change.

2. No reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in a crime is necessary for a legal stop. Eighty-eight percent of those stopped, however, are not charged with any crime. As Scheindlin noted, the data shows that "according to their own records and judgment, officers' 'suspicions' were wrong nearly nine times out of ten."

3. Imaginary bulges. Officers' suspicions were similarly unsubstantiated when reportedly searching for guns. A "suspicious bulge" was cited as a reason for about 10 percent of all stops, but guns were seized in less than 1 percent. "For every 69 stops that police officers justified specifically on the basis of a suspicious bulge, they found one gun," the decision notes.

4. Stops for no reason. The absence of a legally necessary, interpretable "suspected crime" cited on official forms grew from 1.1 percent in 2004 to 35.9 percent (more than 200,000 reported stops) in 2009. During those years, "Overall, in more than half a million documented stops -- 18.4 percent of the total -- officers listed no coherent suspected crime," Scheindlin wrote, meaning they either ignored the section altogether or did not cite suspected behavior that is indeed illegal.

5. Unlawful stops. Scheindlin writes, "According to their own explanations for their actions, NYPD officers conducted at least 170,000 unlawful stops between 2004 and 2009." Stops based on nothing more than "furtive movement" or a "high-crime area" were the justifications of at least 100,000 stops, but as Scheindlin says, are illegal due to the Fourth Amendment law protecting Americans from unreasonable search.

6. Racial profiling. The NYPD's stop-and-frisk program targets blacks and Latinos because of their skin color. Scheindlin admitted the testimony of Columbia University professor Jeffrey Fagan, who found that police stopped blacks and Latinos far more than white residents. Isolated from other factors like crime rates and neighborhood racial composition, racial disparity from racial targeting was statistically significant, strongly underscoring that skin color is the essential factor in determining who gets stopped and throwing weight behind allegations of 14th Amendment violations. Fagan's research also found that "the search for weapons is (a) unrelated to crime, (b) takes place primarily where weapons offenses are less frequent than other crimes, and (c) is targeted at places where the black and Hispanic populations are highest." Cops are more likely to list no suspected crime category, or what Scheindlin called "an incoherent one," like "furtive movements," when stopping blacks and Latinos than when stopping whites. They also are more likely to use force against people of color.

7. NYPD illegal quotas. Scheindlin links the rising number of stops and the targeting of black and Latinos to NYPD quotas and to Commissioner Kelly's own admission that the NYPD has a quota policy, albeit disguised. In a recent operations order, Commissioner Kelly explained departmental policy under the euphemism "performance goal." Kelly said in the order, "Department managers can and must set performance goals," for "the issuance of summonses, the stopping and questioning of suspicious individuals, and the arrests of criminals."

The order also explains a weekly review during which a sergeant compares each officer's monthly "activity" with the "daily assignment," whereby police who "do not demonstrate activities" -- or keep their numbers up -- "will be evaluated accordingly and their assignments re-assessed." In other words, there will be consequences for officers who don't meet quotas, even though New York labor law says penalizing cops for failing to meet quotas is illegal.

Former NYPD officers turned whistleblowers Adhyl Polanco and Adrian Schoolcraft have collected evidence documenting NYPD quotas in practice. From 2008 to 2009, Polanco, from the 41st Precinct, and Schoolcraft, from the 81st, recorded roll calls revealing supervisors' and other high-ranking officers' enforcement of quotas. In Scheindlin's own words, Schoolcraft's audio files expose supervisors "repeatedly telling officers to conduct unlawful stops and arrests and explaining that the instructions for higher performance numbers are coming down the chain of command."

Similarly, Polanco testified that "his commanding officers announced specific quotas for arrests and summons (quotas that rose dramatically between early 2008 and 2009) and for UF-250s" (a term for the forms used in stops), said Scheindlin, "and threatened overtime and undesirable assignments for those who failed to meet them."

8. Repeat performances. According to the NYCLU, in 2011 the NYPD stopped more young, black men than live in New York; that is, some individuals are stopped and frisked repeatedly. To protect their rights, plaintiffs are seeking "systemic relief" -- an end to the unconstitutional practice of stop-and-frisk.

Kristen Gwynne covers drugs at AlterNet. She graduated from New York University with a degree in journalism and psychology.

By Kristen Gwynne

MORE FROM Kristen Gwynne

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alternet Nypd Race