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Stop and Frisk – Who's Being Searched?

by Megan Tady, Oct 09, 2007
 In minority communities across the city being stopped and frisked has become routine, according to some community leaders. "It's almost like brushing your teeth in the morning, because in our community you never know when you're going to get stopped," said Ken Cohen, director of the Metropolitan Council of NAACP Branches in New York City.

Cohen and others regularly offer advice on how to respond when halted and patted down. They tell young people to follow directions and remain nonconfrontational, even if it means disregarding their right to ask for the officer's name or badge number.

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"We've found that when you do ask, that only infuriates the officers and makes things worse," said Cohen. "Things can get quickly out of control if [officers] feel like they're not in control or if you're asking too many questions."

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Police released statistics earlier this year showing the amount of stops conducted by police increased five-fold in from 2001 to 2006. The police patted down someone on the streets of the city half a million times last year. Some experts credit the practice for the drastic reduction of crime in the city. Many community activists and civil liberties advocates, though, claim stop and frisk is an example of racial profiling, since the vast majority of stops are black or Latino.

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The stop and frisk debate was fueled earlier this year when the New York Civil Liberties Union learned that the Police Department was compiling a vast database of all the individuals who had been stopped and that more than 86 percent were black or Hispanic in 2006. The debate now not only concerns the stops themselves but the records of those stops and what information on the police department should have to provide to the public.

That has shoved the practice back in the city's center stage, resulted in a Freedom of Information Law Request by the civil liberties union and an independent analysis of the data due out any day.

Getting the Data

The department is expected to hand over its stop and frisk data to the City Council every quarter. It released data in 2002 and not again until 2006. The huge increase over that period fueled suspicions of the practice and concerns from City Council and civil libertarians about what information was not being made available.

The City Council stepped up its demands for access to the department's electronic database. The civil liberties union has followed the council's lead by filing the Freedom of Information Law request. That request is still pending.

Stop and frisk data from 2003 through 2006 is currently being processed by a private vendor, a spokesman for the Police Department said, because its collection predated the electronic system currently used. The police department also contends the data correlates with descriptions of race given by victims and witnesses.

The department did not give even all of its 2006 data to council. While it hand delivered raw data to the City Council, it did not provide its electronic database, which, according to the civil liberties union, details reasons for each individual stop. That database, advocates said, could also provide the council with greater ability to conduct oversight.

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The City Council stepped up its demands for access to the department's electronic database. The civil liberties union has followed the council's lead by filing the Freedom of Information Law request. That request is still pending.

Councilmember Peter Vallone, who is also chair of the council's public safety committee, said, "The best way to prove or dispel these concerns is to operate in the daylight." The negotiations over the database, Vallone said, are "at the highest level" - between the City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (For an artilce by Vallone on the police, see "A Dwindling Police Presence.")

While the NYPD has been reticent to release the database to the City Council, the department has turned it over to the RAND Corporation for an independent analysis into whether the department was using race as a factor in stop and frisk instances.

Announcing the partnership in February, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said in a press release, "While the police department's analysis of the data in general terms showed that stops were consistent with concentrations of crime and of victim descriptions of suspects, we've asked RAND...to make an in-depth inquiry to determine whether there are any flaws that we may need to address."

The onset of an independent investigation into the data has not stopped calls for further transparency. "The private company asked to do a study of these statistics is using the raw data that the City Council doesn't have," Vallone said. "Clearly without access to the same information, we won't be able to verify their conclusions or in fact do as in-depth a study."

Chris Dunn, legislative director for the New York Civil Liberties Union said an independent analysis was important to police accountability.

"There's been a lot of evidence to suggest that race is playing a big role in people getting stopped in stop and frisks," he said. "That's an important policy issue, but there needs to be a more serious analysis of the data to confirm that."

Dunn fears that RAND's exclusive access to the data will result in a one-sided analysis. He said by not widely releasing the stop and frisk records, it appears that the department has something to hide. "I don't think there's anything complicated about it," Dunn said. "[The NYPD doesn't] want anyone else to see [the data]. And I don't think they want people to see it because there's trouble in the database for them."

In an emailed response, Deputy Police Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne said the department is not required nor will it give the council access to the database because it identifies individuals.

Figures released in August for the second quarter of 2007 revealed the amount of stops decreased by more than 12 percent compared to the same quarter in 2006. But the new numbers have not stalled the call for increased transparency.

Effect on Communities

The fatal shooting by police of Amadou Diallo in 1999 produced greater calls for police oversight. As part of that, the City Council was charged with receiving and reviewing the stop and frisk data. Since then, allegations of stop and frisk abuse have not ceased and minority communities, some leaders said, have been especially hard hit.

For minority communities, Cohen of the NAACP said, the policy goes beyond crime control. Stop and frisks have a negative impact on communities, he added, by putting individuals through humiliating interrogations and pat downs. And, he said, racial profiling is rife.

"[The police] might get a call on their radio about a suspect and they might start stopping an 'African American male,'" Cohen said. "That's what they're looking for: an 'African American male.' They forget about tall, short, heavy, stocky, brown hair, red hair, braids."

In addition to the number of minorities that have been stopped, the 2006 data also revealed that less than 10 percent of stop and frisks result in arrests or summonses, according to the civil liberties union.

"The problem with stop-and-frisk is that even if you've got good police, the hit rate is still pretty low," said Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former police officer in Baltimore.

Moskos, who stopped and frisked people during his time as a police officer, has conflicting feeling about it. While he said the practice helps get guns off of New York City streets, he also finds it troubling. "It's not pleasant," Moskos said. "Police approach the situation assuming that you're armed until it's proven otherwise. It's a hands on, intrusive, inherently bad experience that creates a lot of the resentment that's out there."

He said much could be done to improve stop-and-frisk encounters. "It sounds mundane, but police could be more courteous and less rude when they do it," Moskos said. "It's never pleasant to be frisked. But it can be made a little less unpleasant."

But others seek greater changes. Cohen and the NAACP want to stricter accountability and increased diversity training for police. Dunn said the numbers of stop and frisk encounters needs to diminish. The police, he said, need "to find a way to train police officers to stop people on the basis of suspicious activities instead of things like race."

 


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