Stop and Frisk

It is a strange moment in New York City’s history. While media outlets across the nation ruminate about a post-racial America, it seems abundantly clear that racial profiling by the NYPD continues to occur on a regular basis. Case in point: the Jamaican-born Leonardo Blair, a former New York Post reporter who was stopped, searched and arrested without cause by police in the Bronx late last year. He has since become the plaintiff in a civil action lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) against the city for violating his constitutional rights. The NYCLU’s Donna Lieberman has claimed the arresting officers targeted him essentially because he was “walking while black.”

Photo by Taku Kumabe.

Yet proponents of the post-racial America might say that Blair is only one man and that his story doesn’t imply that racism dominates our daily life. Only individual people are still racist, they would say. But that’s where the other NYCLU lawsuit comes in, the one which charges the city for release of their stop-and-frisk data to the public. This data could show that officers disproportionately target black and Latino males in their stop-and-frisk practices, with over 50 percent of those stopped being black and another 30 percent Latino in 2007. The NYCLU claims that this is the reason Blair was stopped even though he had done nothing wrong. He was simply black.

That is why it seems appropriate that the NYCLU is tackling the issue of stop-and-frisk on both fronts, the Blair suit not only challenging his unlawful treatment but also the legality of the stop-and-frisk database, while the release-of-data suit aims to show that the NYPD engages in racial targeting and to achieve transparency regarding police procedures. “The Blair case is intended to change stop-and-frisk practices,” says Christopher Dunn of NYCLU, lead counsel on both cases. “The department is engaged in a practice of unlawfully stopping and frisking people, so hopefully that would change.” The database case seeks information concerning how those practices have been carried out to date.

Photos by Christian Lau.

“Through broken-windows inspired practices, large increases in citizen stops, and increases in misdemeanor marijuana arrests, the police are essentially widening the net by forcing more low-level offenders, and non-offenders, to have to explain their actions and motives,” says Professor Stephen Rice of Seattle University, formerly of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The stop-and-frisk database retains Blair’s information even though the charges against him have since been dropped. Even though he is innocent he will always now retain this criminal mark. And he is just one of many thousands.

In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry vs. Ohio that police stops without probable cause to arrest are constitutional, so long as the officer has reasonable suspicion that the suspect was, is, or is about to be involved in a crime. It also ruled that frisking is constitutional so long as the officer has reasonable suspicion that the suspect is carrying a weapon and that s/he or others are in danger of physical injury. The officer can then seize any weapons discovered, along with any contraband found, and this of course includes drugs. By increasing the use of stop-and-frisks in the poorest and predominantly non-white neighborhoods, the NYPD has thus come to record a tenfold increase in the number of marijuana arrests over the past ten years.

In 1999, following the shooting death of Amadou Diallo by four NYPD Street Crimes Unit officers, Eliot Spitzer, then the state’s attorney general, commissioned a study of the stop-and-frisk data from January 1998 to March 1999. It examined 175,000 UF-250 forms, which officers are required to fill out after every “stop,” and finally showed that blacks and Latinos were disproportionately stopped. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights accused the NYPD of racial profiling, which then-police commissioner Howard Safir denied. The Street Crimes Unit was later disbanded because of the accusations. In November 2006, the shooting of Sean Bell precipitated much public speculation about why the frequency of NYPD stop-and-frisks had jumped so much.

In February 2007, the NYPD released raw statistics concerning its stop-and-frisk practices. It showed that over half-a-million pedestrians had been stopped in 2006, which was nearly a five-fold increase in the number of stops documented in 2002. That was the last time that a full year’s-worth of data had been released. The data also showed that, despite there being one-and-a-half times more white New Yorkers than black, 55 percent of stops were of black persons and a total of 89 percent of those stopped were non-white. Of those stopped, 45 percent of black or Latino pedestrians were then frisked, compared with only 29 percent of whites.

Nonetheless, a Rand Corporation report commissioned last year by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly showed that minority individuals were stopped in numbers that roughly matched crime suspect descriptions. The report, released in November 2007, was met with harsh criticism by the NYCLU, which accused Rand of using inappropriate statistical methods to analyze the data, or the UF-250 forms that record the time, place, “stop” rationale and any outcomes, including whether there was an arrest or a frisk.

And then to exacerbate the problem, the NYPD initially refused to release the same data—the UF-250 forms, which are more detailed than the raw statistics they did release—precipitating the NYCLU database suit. With the support of the New York Times, the New York City Bar Association and 21 academics from across the country, the NYCLU filed its lawsuit against the NYPD for access to the stop-and-frisk database. In May 2008, the state Supreme Court ordered the NYPD to release the database, withholding only the private information of those individuals involved. The NYPD has since appealed the decision.*

Only a week after the Rand report was released, Leonardo Blair was stopped by police as he was returning home in the Bronx. He was questioned, searched, and then arrested, only to be taken down to the 49th precinct where he was soon released. The charges against him were dropped in February, yet his name, address and the record of his arrest remain in the stop-and-frisk database, which is where, once again, the NYCLU enters the scene.

The group’s lawsuit against the city and the NYPD, filed on behalf of Blair, seeks to have his record sealed or expunged and also challenges the constitutionality of his stop, search and arrest. Since there was no reasonable suspicion for the officers to stop or frisk Blair, their actions violated the constitutional rights stated in Terry vs. Ohio. Perhaps, as the NYCLU has claimed, it was racial profiling, but certainly there was no probable cause.

In a post-racist America, the officers that stopped Blair would just be “bad apples,” fed to the press and the courts as part of a cathartic public ritual built around scandal. “One of the things that happens is that the police department does settle and pay out millions and millions of dollars on suits, on cases where police have gone over the edge,” says sociologist Harry Levine of Queens College, CUNY. “They just see it as a cost of doing business.” In this context, racial targeting presumably employed at a widespread level by the NYPD would be left unmentioned and untouched.

But because the NYPD has escalated its use of forceful policing tactics in low-income and usually non-white communities, the cathartic release of seeing a couple of officers charged is not enough. Media spectacle over scandals cannot erase the atmosphere of hostility and fear toward the police accumulated through years of mistreatment and police abuse. According to Stephen Rice, New York’s recent history of aggressive “order maintenance” or broken-windows policing has produced large increases in citizen stops and misdemeanor marijuana arrests that will taint future police-citizen interactions.

That is why database-access is such a crucial aspect of the NYCLU’s campaign, for only through greater transparency can the police be made accountable to all New Yorkers, regardless of race. “The police department is answerable to nobody right now,” says Levine, “aside from the mayor, who clearly approves of what his police are doing right now.” The disproportionate targeting of black and Latino males by the NYPD continues to remain unacknowledged, confirming suspicions that the NYPD is far from democratic and transparent in its exercise of power.

Yet this transparency is not meant as an end but as a means to force the NYPD to transform the way it runs its show. “The NYPD has a policy guide that spells out their stop-and-frisk policy,” says Dunn, adding that it has to be both updated and better enforced. Effective and meaningful ways of ending the practice of racial targeting will have to be discussed and adopted, but this can only occur once the problem is actually acknowledged.

Nonetheless, Dunn seems to think that racial targeting is merely a “training of supervision issue,” one that will perhaps disappear once the NYPD policy guidelines are enforced. Yet the problem actually appears to run much deeper, resulting in black and Latino youths being the targets of “quality of life” policing. “The police do this because everyone wants to show productivity, that they are busy. They need to make an arrest or two a month or they get flack from their supervisors,” says Levine. “[It is] a whole chain that depends on generating numbers.”

Although police brutality continues to be a problem—the Sean Bell shooting occurred just under two years ago—focusing only on those cases makes it easy to overlook the random displays of non-deadly police power that occur in low-income neighborhoods on a regular basis. “Kelly is interested in reducing the routine brutality… the racist comments and the gratuitous roughing up of people,” says Levine. “As long as the police department can limit the more grotesque forms of brutality, the more extreme kinds of corruption, they appear to be able to do just about everything they want.”

  • Ed.'s note: This version of the article corrects two errors from the print and earlier Web version. The earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that minorities had "roughly an equal change of being stopped as their white compatriots," which was not a finding in the RAND study; and it stated that the New York Times had criticized the study's statistical methods (the paper only reported the NYCLU's criticisms). Also, since June 2008, the UF-250 data has been available at the National Archive of Criminal Justice database. The Rail regrets the errors and thanks the RAND Corporation for alerting us to them.

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Audrea Lim

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