Last week the NYPD and a Federal Court appointed "stop and frisk" monitor came to agreement on the distribution of informational receipts to be given out to people stopped by the police. The cards will contain identifying information about the officer and the reason for the interaction. This is one of several potential outcomes of the "stop and frisk" community remediation process now underway stemming from the Floyd v. City of New York decision.
The idea for the cards came out of efforts by Communities United for Police Reform to dial back abusive and discriminatory police stops which numbered in the hundreds of thousands just a few years ago and overwhelmingly targeted young men of color. A very similar proposal is contained in the organization’s package of police reforms now before the City Council, commonly referred to as the Right to Know Act.
The thinking behind the proposal is that police will be less likely to engage in unlawful, abusive, or disrespectful stops if there is enhanced accountability. In addition, the cards can be used to help people document the stop and possibly aid in their efforts to bring Civilian Complaint Review Board cases. While in practice police might not give out the cards as required in every interaction, failure to do so would be a violation of administrative policy.
This new procedure is no cure-all for the problems of discourteous, abusive, and excessive policing, but it is a step towards greater transparency and accountability and could play a role in reducing some abusive practices by officers.
It is also in keeping with the department’s professed goal of increasing respectful communication between officers and the public in the hopes of achieving greater mutual understanding. However, the problem of completely respectful and lawful overpolicing will remain.
A courteous ticket for riding a bike on the sidewalk or a respectful arrest for selling loose cigarettes is still a deeply problematic example of ballooning police power and the criminalization of everyday life for too many people.
In response to these rather benign efforts at basic transparency and legal accountability, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch issued a deeply disturbing statement condemning the move:
“With the CCRB’s contact information prominently listed on the back, these receipts are clearly designed to invite retaliatory complaints against police officers who make an active effort to prevent crime and take guns off the street. They are just one more item on the ever-growing list of anti-public-safety measures that will put an end to proactive policing in this city and ultimately accelerate the increase in crime and disorder that we are already seeing in our public spaces.”
While unions have the right to speak out about public policy measures that affect their members, they should be held publicly accountable for those statements. Pat Lynch's comments will only serve to inflame community tensions and undermine public confidence in the NYPD, which is already experiencing a significant legitimacy crisis in many communities of color.
By attempting to evade transparency and accountability, he is signaling to his members and the public that police have something to hide about the way they interact with the public. Further, his suggestion that accountability hurts crime fighting is based on the faulty belief that the only way to reduce crime is through aggressive, disrespectful, and unconstitutional policing. This is a deeply disturbing view of policing and should be of great concern to elected leaders and the public.
It also seems a bit disingenuous to express such a high level of concern about the potential for retaliatory complaints against officers. Any review of the outcome of such complaints should greatly reassure him since so few of them actually result in any negative consequences for officers. Even with recently enhanced powers, the CCRB rarely substantiates claims against officers and even when it does, meaningful consequences are infrequent. The mere possession of one of these information cards, in the absence of extensive corroborating evidence, will hardly prove sufficient to substantiate a complaint under current evidentiary standards.
It’s time for Pat Lynch and the officers he represents to stop being part of the problem of poor police-community relations. He could start by acknowledging that a problem exists and begin working with reformers and community activists to repair some of the damage caused by years of racialized overpolicing.
The rank-and-file members of the NYPD did not create the current situation all on their own; our elected leaders have encouraged an expanded and more aggressive role for the police, placing them on an untenable “war” footing all too often. At the same time, elected officials should politically isolate any union leader that shows such contempt for the public they serve and look for concrete ways to diminish police power by finding more effective and less punitive alternatives.
Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale