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National Night Out and Community Policing

The last year has been a difficult one for the New York Police Department: the police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond; the subsequent acquittal of the officers involved in the Diallo case; the lack of diplomacy by Commissioner Safir and Mayor Giuliani. All have increased the mistrust that many have felt toward the police for a long time.

But for the past 16 years, something out of the ordinary occurs on the first Tuesday night of August, and this year is no different. It is called National Night Out -- an evening of cooperation, communication, celebration, a series of activities throughout the country and throughout the city including basketball games between precinct teams and community groups, live music, staffed information booths, and magic shows. National Night Out is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch, the same group that sponsors Neighborhood Watch groups.

The success of National Night Out is irrefutable: Since its founding in 1984, it has grown to involve over 30 million people in more than 9,000 communities. It is part of a growing trend toward community policing - a crime-fighting strategy based on the idea that a strong relationship between the police and the community is the key to lower crime rates. Most frequently, such a relationship is forged by having beat cops patrol the same areas, often on foot, so that area residents come to know their police officers. Other basic strategies of community policing involve outreach programs and community collaboration. Both the National Center for Community Policing and Policing.com offer what amounts to a primer on community policing - - its history, implementation and results.

The NYPD runs a host of programs to involve community residents and respond to their needs. Just last month, a Staten Island prosecutor announced the opening of a community office in Tottenville. The purpose of the field office, District Attorney William Murphy said, is to work more closely with the residents to identify community needs and issues, and "to solve problems before they begin."

Staten Island is not alone. Every precinct in the City has its own programs and community policing unit. Here are just a few examples:

  • Auxiliary Police Program. The 111th precinct in Bayside is one of several precincts throughout the city where civilians are trained to be volunteers of the department. Wearing uniforms and patrolling in groups, they act as the eyes and ears of police, often at large community events where security is necessary.
  • Model Block Program. Tenants organize block associations to monitor and maintain the quality of their block.
  • Precinct Open Houses. This is meant to encourage informal interactions between police and the community.
  • Youth Programs. A variety of youth programs are in place across the City, including the "Explorers Program." Open to high schoolers, these Explorers meet once a week at the precinct. Activities range from participating in community functions, such as parades and fairs, to field trips to law enforcement agencies, to rollerblading and athletic activities. During the school year 1998-99, the Explorers program and other youth programs reached over 117,000 youths.
  • Domestic Violence Program. The 83rd precinct in Bushwick tracks all domestic violence cases reported. It collaborates with the Victims Service Agency to provide counseling and social services to battered women.

Critics say these programs are little more than a gesture, and that racism and abuse of power persist within the department. The US Commission on Civil Rights released a widely-publicized report in June which found that the NYPD was guilty of racial profiling in its stop-and-frisk practices. Among its recommendations: adopt community policing strategies -- specifically, encourage more officers to live in the areas they police.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's "Officer Next Door" program is trying to do just that, by offering police officers 50 percent savings on a home that they purchase in designated "revitalization areas" in inner city neighborhoods across the country. There are 53 such areas in New York City. It is unclear as of yet how many officers have taken advantage of the offer.

A recently released report on the New York Police Department's disciplinary actions against officers found that, despite the greater attention brought by the high-profile cases, there was actually a 25 percent drop in the allegations of police brutality last year. Public Advocate Mark Green also produced a report, though with far more damning statistics, entitled Disciplining Police: Solving the Problem of Police Misconduct. Whether the situation of police brutality is getting worse or getting better, many suggest that one way to curtail it is through community policing.

Jessica Green is a student of public policy at Columbia University's Graduate School of International and Public Affairs.

Red Hook Community Justice Center

The defendant, charged with drug possession, walked to the front of the courtroom, her head down, her hands clasped behind her back, as Judge Alex Calabrese peered down at her, and pronounced her sentence: Job training. Community service

"There are a lot of services in this building that could help you," he tells the defendant. " And it's much more likely you won't have to come back here again." He is talking about the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

Opened just last month, the Justice Center is one of a handful of "community courts" across the country that re-envision how the criminal justice system should operate. By offering on-site services -- including drug treatment, G.E.D. classes to get a high school diploma, and job training -- the Center seeks to address the underlying problems that contribute to high crime rates. They also offer soup in the arraignment room.

At the same time, alternative sentences -- such as cleaning up a neighborhood park -- aim to make punishment visible while putting offenders to work in their communities. The Red Hook Justice Center joins the Midtown Community Court, which opened in Manhattan in 1993. A similar court in Harlem will open later this year. All three are designed to address one of the criminal justice system's most glaring failures: those arrested for low-level offences often are back on the streets in a matter of weeks or months, committing crimes.

The case of Paris Drake, a career criminal who had been arrested more than twenty times before allegedly attacking a woman with a brick in broad daylight last winter, highlighted the "revolving door" problem in New York's overburdened courts. Both Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani have called for tougher, mandatory sentences for low-level offenders.

More defendants in the Midtown Community Court who are sentenced to community service actually do it than in any other criminal court in the city. Yet there is also a recidivism rate that is as high as those of the other courts. Still, community court supporters say the push for reform, spearheaded by New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, is building. "This language of rethinking and improving business as usual is starting to seep out," says Greg Berman, one of the Red Hook Justice Center's planners. "It's not just us."

In Red Hook, changing business as usual meant not just improving the criminal justice system, but tackling a host of other quality-of-life issues within the community. Later this year, the Justice Center will add housing and family court cases, making it the country's first multi-jurisdictional court. The Red Hook Public Safety Corps, an Americorps program housed within the Center, has already become one of the neighborhood's biggest employers. The Center's services are available not only to offenders but also to local residents who may have no connection to the criminal justice system.

"The notion of bringing courts back to the community, that courts can play a role in making communities safer, stronger-these are notions that resonate with people," says Berman, Deputy Director of the Center for Court Innovation (CCI), a joint project of the state court system and the non-profit agency, the Fund for the City of New York.

Berman and other planners at CCI began work on the Red Hook Justice Center in 1994, meeting with community members and using the Midtown Community Court as a model. Many of the Justice Center's innovations are literally built into the building. The detention rooms, for instance, where people are held before they are brought to trial, use plate-glass windows instead of bars to allow natural light to enter.

"We felt that the building's design should reflect the principles of the program," says Berman. "We want to communicate respect for people."

Judge Calabrese says his colleagues within the judiciary wish they had the services available to him in sentencing offenders. He cites the case of a sixteen-year-old high-school dropout who appeared before him, arrested for possession of four vials of crack.

"I thought he was someone on the wrong path," said Judge Alex Calabrese. "He was working with a drug dealer, starting to make some money, and it's tough to compete with that." As part of his sentence, the young man began job training, attending GED classes, and talking to a counselor who had worked for twenty years at the state prison in Attica. "This counselor makes a very convincing argument that drugs will land you in prison in the long run.

"I think this case would've been handled very quickly downtown. They would've addressed the charge, but they wouldn't address the underlying problem. He would've gotten his jail sentence and he'd probably get out and go back to working with a dealer. I don't think he could've been straightened out."


NYPD vs. Civil Rights Commission

The battle over police practices in New York is now being waged on paper. On April 27, one year after it first announced its investigation of the NYPD, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission released a much anticipated 250-page draft report. The Police Department weighed in on May 16 with an angry 700-page rebuttal.

The Commission faults the NYPD for inadequate diversity training and failed minority recruiting efforts, but its most serious charge is that police officers use racial profiling in their stop-and-frisk tactics. The report cites the Department's own records, which show that in Staten Island, for example, 51% of the people stopped in 1998 were black, though blacks make up only 9% of the borough's population.

The report dismisses the Department's claims that stop-and-frisks occur most often in high-crime, minority neighborhoods, and that officers are simply responding to descriptions of suspects as reported to them. After reviewing nearly 150,000 records of stops made in 1998, the Commission determined that officers usually acted on their own judgments and observations, rather than victim identifications.

In its rebuttal, the NYPD disparages the report as "an unfortunate exercise in shoddy reporting" and "an embarrassment to the United States government." In particular, the Department ridicules the Commission's reliance on perennial police critics Al Sharpton and the New York Civil Liberties Union's Norman Siegel. Mayor Giuliani has called the report "a political operation of the Democratic Party," neatly timed to give Hillary Clinton a boost for her Senate run. (The Commission consists of an eight-member panel of four Democrats, three independents, and one Republican. The New York Observer has reported that the head of the Commission's head, Mary Frances Berry, has made campaign contributions to Hillary.

Jerome Sounds Off:

For all the controversy it has created, the Civil Rights Commission report contains little that New Yorkers haven't heard before. In restrained language, bolstered by numerous charts and citations of hundreds of thousands of documents reviewed by its panel, the report makes some familiar accusations, but also pats the NYPD on the back in several instances.

The Commission offers some remedies that are unrealistic (officers should live in the City) or ill-begotten (the elitist proposal that officers be required to have four-years of college instead of two because better-educated officers are less likely to engage in misconduct). Another recommendation, the formation of an independent monitor to review civilian complaints of police misconduct, would in effect create a second oversight agency to monitor the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

The Commission finally gets it right when it discusses the pressure felt throughout the NYPD„from Commanding Officers to beat cops„to produce arrests. Could it be that if the Department eases up on quotas to make collars and stands down the armies of Operation Condor personnel, it will help defuse the issue of police misconduct? It may be wishful thinking, but the Mayor's newest resolution to reach out to all the City's residents may give his administration one last chance to find out.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

Stop-and-Frisk Searches

Stop-and-frisk searches, one of the most controversial police tactics of recent years and a hallmark crime-fighting tactic of the Giuliani-era, are under scrutiny again. Investigators for the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) have charged that police officers regularly fail to file the required paperwork after they search people on the street.

The CCRB began reviewing more than 1700 stop-and-frisk complaints in March 1999, shortly after the Amadou Diallo shooting, then narrowed its sample to 228 cases in which the Board had conducted a full investigation. Of these, the Board found that written search reports, or UF250s, had been filled out in only about half of the cases. The reports, which are supposed to record the time, place, reason for and results of each search, are meant to ensure some level of police accountability, as well as to protect officers from accusations of misconduct.

The CCRB's findings, contained in a 54-page draft report obtained by the New York Times, echo a similar report issued by state attorney general Eliot Spitzer which accused the NYPD of unfairly targeting black and Hispanic New Yorkers for stop-and-frisk searches. CCRB chairman Frank Wohl cautioned that the draft report was "extremely preliminary" and yet to be discussed by the full Board.

Perhaps more than any other police tactic, stop-and-frisk searches bitterly divide tough-on-crime advocates from those who feel the war on crime has gone too far. Aggressive searches have led to increased gun and drug seizures, and are widely credited with lowering crime rates, but many minority residents consider these searches a threat--at any moment they may be subjected to a humiliating invasion of privacy, though they have committed no crime. Tracking searches, however, may be a quixotic task. Paperwork is generally a dirty word within the NYPD's ranks; for many officers, filing reports is an unnecessary burden (see 5/1 Commentary).

Police Commissioner Howard Safir declined to comment on the CCRB's findings, telling reporters through a spokesperson "It's inappropriate to respond to a report we have not received."


Stop-and-frisk: patting down the outside of a suspect's clothing, feeling for a weapon

Search: reaching inside a suspect's pockets or other interior parts of clothing to determine if an object felt is a weapon.

Missing Searches?

Police Action


UF250 filed










Frisk & Search








Jerome Sounds Off:

To Mayor Giuliani, police coverage in the Times means more cop-bashing stories. But beat writer Kevin Flynn has published a number of articles from behind the Blue Wall, including one last month on the deteriorating conditions at the City's 76 precinct houses: crumbling walls, decrepit plumbing and electrical systems, overcrowded offices, and a backlog of thousands of repair orders.

With its numbers growing by 25% to 40,000 over the past decade, the NYPD has found itself competing with the Board of Education and other agencies for limited building maintenance funds. Now the City has earmarked over $40 million over the next four years to build two new Brooklyn station houses and renovate the Central Park station house. And Police Commissioner Howard Safir recently announced the Department would spend an additional $5 million to improve building maintenance.

The biggest story here, however, may be the timing of the Times article. This isn't the first time someone has sounded the alarm about the NYPD's falling buildings; Alan Hevesi described many of the same conditions, and recommended extensive renovations, in a 1998 report. And an additional $5 million for repairs is a drop in the bucket compared to the NYPD's $3 billion 2000 budget. But for a Department whose strategies have been repeatedly questioned this year, a report on spending priorities may have been in order.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

Operation Condor

From Louima to Diallo to Dorismond, Mayor Giuliani has never wavered in his support for the NYPD, a stance that seems equal parts political strategy and personal conviction. Not surprisingly, through months of controversy the Mayor has continued to pursue one central element of the crime war that has defined his administration: a crackdown on misdemeanors and "quality of life" offenses.

That philosophy is carried out everyday by the 500 officers deployed by Operation Condor, a $24 million narcotics enforcement drive. What the Street Crime Unit, the roving elite squad involved in the Diallo case, did for gun seizures, Condor has done for drug activity arrests. In two months, Condor officers have produced a staggering 21,445 arrests, and seem to have inherited from the Street Crime Unit an aggressive, quota-minded approach to policing. Indeed, shortly before his confrontation with Patrick Dorismond, Officer Anthony Vazquez is said to have told his fellow officers that he wanted to get one more "collar" or arrest that night.

Critics claim that too many of these arrests have netted small-time offenders: while arrests for misdemeanors and violations is up 68% from last year, felony arrests are down 9%. But the very essence of the "broken windows" theory Mayor Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir have put into practice is that sooner or later lesser offenders commit violent crime. From this standpoint, Operation Condor has accomplished exactly what it has set out to do.

Further down the line in the criminal justice system, Mayor Giuliani is following up the increased police activity with a legislative battle to put more lesser offenders behind bars for longer stays. The Mayor's Criminal Justice Coordinator Steven Fishner recently testified before City Council in favor of legislation that would create tougher sentences for repeat misdemeanor offenders.

Is this the right strategy for the City? Although Commissioner Safir has cited statistics showing further drops in crime, the homicide rate is up 22% this year.

Jerome Sounds Off: If Trends Continue, We Could See...

News review: Week of May 12, 2000:
A police officer shot and killed an unarmed Catholic priest who was driving home after services at his Brooklyn church Wednesday night. According to police department records, Father Smith, who was black, was stopped by two officers for reckless driving at 10:15pm, shortly after finishing a weekly prayer meeting at the Our Ascension Church in the Flatbush neighborhood of Central Brooklyn.

When he was asked to step out of his vehicle, Father Smith began arguing with the officers, who were uniformed and were driving an NYPD patrol car. A brief scuffle ensued, during which time one of the officers shot Father Miller, who died at King's County Hospital later that night.

At a press conference on Thursday, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has faced sharp criticism for his handling of recent police shootings, said "As you know, I am a practicing Catholic, and in no way do I condone the killing of a clergyman. But the fact is, these officers were patrolling a high-crime area." Mayor Giuliani added that Father Miller's behavior was "clearly hostile" and "bears further investigation."

News Review: Week of June 4, 2000
In another fatal police shooting that has once again raised questions about the New York Police Department's tactics in minority neighborhoods, an unarmed man was shot and killed in his Harlem apartment early Thursday morning by an undercover officer.

According to eyewitness accounts, Sgt. Smith Wesson followed William Baga, 22, into his building on Lenox Avenue and approached him as he entered his first-floor apartment. When Mr. Baga attempted to close the door, Sgt. Wesson shot Mr. Baga six times. Mr. Baga was the fifth unarmed black man killed by police in the last 13 months.

Sgt. Wesson was part of "Operation Condor," an aggressive drug crackdown initiative whose officers were involved in the March shooting of an unarmed security guard in Manhattan. Speaking to reporters on Thursday Mayor Giuliani urged New Yorkers to reserve judgment in the shooting. At a Friday press conference, however, Police Commissioner Howard Safir released to the press on Friday copies of pornographic videos and magazines found in Mr Baga's apartment. Mr. Baga, a recent immigrant from Barbados who had been unemployed for six months before the shooting, had also received numerous complaints from neighbors about excessive noise, according to the Commissioner. "This man belonged to an element of society that has done a lot of harm to this City," said Commissioner Safir.

News Review: Week of June 18, 2000
In an incident that has shocked a city already reeling from a series of police shootings, Commissioner Howard Safir shot and killed an unarmed, black homeless man as he and Mayor Giuliani left a press conference at City Hall Monday morning. The victim, a 38-year-old who frequently panhandled the downtown area, physically threatened the Mayor and Commissioner, according to city officials. When police officers failed to restrain Mr. James, Commissioner Safir drew his weapon and fired 3 times, killing Mr. James. Neither the Mayor or the Commissioner had ever fired a weapon in the line of duty.

The incident sparked massive demonstrations at City Hall, as well as condemnation by Senate candidate Hillary Clinton. In a statement on Tuesday, mayoral aide Bruce Teitelbaum said "Obviously this is a difficult situation and a tragedy that, once again, the Mayor's political opponents have chosen to distort and exploit."

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society. 

DNA Redux

As reported in the Gotham Gazette last month, NYPD Police Commissioner Howard Safir has said DNA testing, which uses samples of genetic material to identify potential suspects, could revolutionize law enforcement, if only legislators would catch up to the technology. He's just gotten his wish. On February 23rd, Governor Pataki proposed new laws that would broadly expand the use of DNA in solving crimes. These proposals, the most aggressive measures in the country, would eliminate the statute of limitations on sixteen felonies and allow police to collect DNA samples from anyone convicted of a crime.

As in most U.S. states, current New York law restricts the use of DNA testing. Only those convicted of the most serious felony cases (about 65% of all felonies) must provide samples, and, with the exception of murder, crimes can only be prosecuted up to five years after they're committed. But DNA samples can reliably identify or clear a suspect well after five years' time, and can link an inmate convicted of one crime to others.

DNA testing has been a hot media topic in recent weeks. In a long piece for City Journal, Commissioner Safir championed DNA testing as a crime-fighting tool. In the pages of Newsweek, the founders of the Innocence Project, a legal center that seeks to overturn mistaken death row sentences, argued that making testing more accessible could help free many inmates who have been wrongly imprisoned. And in an article the Governor said influenced his decision to submit his proposals, the New York Times reported on rape cases in which DNA had identified suspects who could no longer be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.

It's not yet clear how the State Legislature, controlled by Democrats who have rejected some of the Governor's previous criminal justice initiatives, will vote on the new proposals. But with DNA on a fast track from obscurity to the top of New York's criminal justice agenda, don't be surprised to see DNA crime labs getting a lot of funding and attention.

Jerome Sounds Off:

"Verdicts do not send messages," defense attorneys in the Diallo trial told jurors, but of course we know better. The acquittals jurors handed out in Albany last Friday may have been based on sound legal judgment, but they still send a terrible message, especially to those living in the City's minority neighborhoods: no one was at fault in this case. What other response can you expect from the thousands who marched in demonstrations this past weekend? You feel either sadness or terrible rage.

What we need, then, is someone to step forward and deliver another message. Where do we go from here? The Reverend Calvin Butts, no stranger to political opportunism, called on his congregation to work against Mayor Giuliani's probable Senate run. Al Sharpton, who so effectively galvanized protestors last year, suggested a vague, untargeted boycott. Both men fanned their audiences' anger and resentment.

They've got that part right. But now's the time to turn heated emotions into something lasting, a way to change police practices in the City. We can expect the Mayor and Police Commissioner will do nothing until something forces their hand, as protesters did last year. There's no end of specific proposals that public pressure could highlight. Provide more funding for the CCRB and demand a commitment from the Commissioner to disclose how he's punishing officers guilty of abusing their power. Take former Commissioner William Bratton's suggestion to reduce the size of the force by 5,000 officers, allowing more training for those remaining. Curb the Street Crime Unit (a long overdue change that Comissioner Safir began last October when he shut down the infamous squad's headquarters and created eight separate units).

Community leaders could also take on a very unglamorous, time-consuming, and painstaking mission: working with community residents to hold their local precincts accountable. As Eli Silverman, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice wrote in the Gotham Gazette last year, "Like most citizens who hold Congress in low esteem but highly value their own Representative, many New Yorkers...resent the [NYPD] but seek more contact with their own beat officer." If the NYPD wants to win back some trust, and residents want to gain some sense of control over how their neighborhood is policed, one place to start is in community meetings with the precinct commander.

Normally, the precinct meetings held regularly across the city are a charade between self-appointed community VIPs and precinct commanders who play good cop for the evening. But a strong, coordinated group can put legitimate issues on the table and give residents and officers a chance to interact with each other outside of traditional roles.

Admittedly, it takes a little wishful thinking to imagine that people all over the city could be mobilized to improve the performance of their local police precincts. But after the painful unfolding of events this past weekend, I think we're entitled to it.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

Repeat Offenders

Paris Drake is accused of a senseless and brutal crime on a busy Midtown street in broad daylight. Whether or not he is convicted of bashing a woman's head with a brick, his arrest has highlighted the criminal justice system's failure to deal with repeat offenders.

Before the alleged attack, Drake had been jailed more than twenty times and was a free man for exactly 17 days out of the last eight years. Like many of his fellow inamtes, Drake was arrested several times on drug-related charges (an estimated 70% of the City's 70,000 inmates have a history of drug abuse). Most of his crimes were misdemeanors, which typically bring sentences of only a few weeks or months in jail.

Clearly, the system doesn't work for Drake and thousands of others who spend years cycling in and out of prison. Prison advocates call for more drug programs, but too often inmates themselves complain that these programs don't work. Most of the ex-cons I spoke to in a recent study of parole--even those who insisted they needed help to stay clean--ridiculed the rehab programs available to them. Some skipped out without consequences. When Drake, for instance, was finally ordered to seek treatment after years of revolving-door prison stints, he blew it off.

Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki have called for a kind of "three strikes and you're out" policy that would mandate longer sentences for repeat offenders after a certain number of misdemeanors in a given time period. Steven M. Fishner, the mayor's criminal justice coordinator, has said "It is for people like Paris Drake, for offenders who sell marijuana repeatedly in city parks, and for others who make a career of committing crimes and skating under the mandatory sentences for felonies."

Such a plan might please prison-happy public officials, but probably won't change criminal behavior. Why not? The motivation needed to go straight is extremely difficult to manufacture, whether you're giving inmates a boot camp regimen or drug programs, long terms upstate or slap-on-the-wrist sentences. The problem is, for those ex-cons who are determined not to return to prison, it's difficult to find a job that pays the bills, and exceedingly easy to get back into crime, especially selling and using drugs. Until this balance changes--perhaps by making effective pre-release programs a priority--no proposal to reduce the number of repeat offenders is likely to succeed.

Jerome Sounds Off:

Quality of Life Crime #54: Selling cheap goods on the subway. (Good thing too, since mostly recent Chinese immigrants are in that racket nowadays, and with their mangling of the language and their haggard countenances, these people are comical at best, downright disturbing if you're in a bad mood. Not the kind of thing you want the tourists to see. Plus, they're cutting into Duracell and Doublemint sales at legitimate rent-paying stores. And remember the "broken-windows" theory Ð today they're selling yo-yos, tomorrow they're hawking stolen watches, pretty soon they're robbing you at gunpoint when you try to take the train! That's why I'm glad I saw a sting operation last week--six uniformed and two plainclothes officers nabbing two guys who, I was told, make thousands of dollars a week selling $1 batteries. It's a good thing these crooks are off the streets now, but not before pocketing our hard-earned George Washingtons and menacing our quality of life.)

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

Strip Searches

City officials have settled a lawsuit alleging the New York Police Department improperly strip-searched people arrested for minor offenses in Brooklyn, agreeing to pay $650,000 to 20 plaintiffs in the case. But the jury remains out on whether strip-searches are being used by police only in special circumstances for safety and to collect evidence, or as a matter of routine.

The settlement of the suit contrasts sharply with the 2001 settlement of a similar case involving alleged wrongdoing in Manhattan and Queens, when the city agreed to pay up to $50 million in a class-action suit. In that case, the city conceded its Corrections Department illegally strip-searched tens of thousands of people held in custody on minor charges during a ten-month period in 1996 and 1997.

Federal courts have ruled since the 1980s that strip-searches are allowed for those arrested for minor crimes only under special circumstances, such as when police have reason to suspect a detainee may have a hidden weapon or contraband, usually drugs.

In settling the Brooklyn case, the city has admitted no wrongdoing, although statements from those plaintiffs involved in the suit describe how they were humiliated after being arrested for misdemeanor crimes, sometimes publicly strip-searched in view of other inmates and officers of the opposite sex.

Police policy says strip searches, when necessary, should be "conducted by a member of the same sex as the arrested person in a secure area in utmost privacy and with no other arrestee present."

Yet the lawsuit and a report(in pdf format) issued in May by the Civilian Complaint Review Board paint a far different picture. The board investigated dozens of complaints filed since 2002, and found that in 2003, they were substantiated at a rate of about 19 percent.

Twelve strip-search complaints were substantiated by the review board last year. Through July of this year, the board has substantiated 14 strip-search complaints.

While those overall numbers are small, officers interviewed by the Civilian Complaint Review Board in response to complaints often described strip-searches as routine and necessary to look for drugs, even if the person was arrested for different reasons. This led the review board to express concern that the problem was more wide-spread than the number of complaints might suggest.

The review board sent a letter to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly calling for better training of officers on how to conduct strip-searches and when strip-searches were permissible. Police officials have responded by saying that a new training video has been under development to give officers a better grasp of department policies on strip-searches.

Those involved in the lawsuit described their disappointment in the settlement to The New York Times.

One man in the Brooklyn lawsuit described for the Times how he was strip-searched after a traffic accident in which he was arrested on suspicion of having a suspended license. He described the crowded, dirty conditions of the holding cell, and then being asked to drop his pants in view of female officers.

"When the lawyers offered [the settlement] to me," the man told The Times, "they said, 'That's not bad for one night.' I said, 'You go try it.' I'm a knockaround guy. That night was pretty horrible."

When and how police conduct strip-searches have been questions raised by similar lawsuits across the country, and even the definition of "strip" search is not completely clear. Some legal scholars wonderexactly how much of a right people have not to be strip-searched.

But aside from when and where strip-searches are allowed, federal courts have ruled in similar cases this year that in order to reach class-action status -- and be eligible for multi-million dollar payouts, like the 2001 lawsuit -- the plaintiffs must prove that they are likely to be harmed in the future by police strip-searches. If those involved in the lawsuit were only involved in minor crimes, then it is unclear that those involved would be arrested again and subjected to similar treatment, according to the explanation presented by The Times.














What Goes In Must Come Out

What goes in must come out. Sasha Abramsky's "When They Get Out," in June's Atlantic Monthly, considers how booming incarceration rates have affected our society, and speculates about what will happen when these prisoners are released. The article focuses on national trends (in twelve states, for instance, ex-offenders can never vote again, which may lead to widespread disenfranchisement), but the implications for New York are obvious. One organizer estimates that beginning in the year 2005, New York's prisons will release about 30,000 inmates a year -- people who will have a hard time finding work and medical care. Abramsky asks important questions about a problem we've swept under the rug, but one we'll have to face up to eventually.

Jerome Sounds Off:

41 bullets, 1000 arrests, and countless Mayoral defensive postures later, what have we learned from the City's police brutality crisis? The infamous Street Crime Unit now sports uniforms -- not that the City's minority residents had too much trouble spotting groups of beefy white guys cruising their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, according to a recent poll, 25% of New York's white voters consider police brutality a "serious problem," compared to 81% of black voters. Despite the unlikely multiracial coalition that rallied around Al Sharpton's City Hall protests, as the chant goes, "No justice, no peace" -- at least not until both sides acknowledge common ground. Shrill activists have their sound bites. But who's speaking for residents of poor neighborhoods, who want more, not fewer, cops on the beat? And when will the Mayor and the Commissioner acknowledge the systemic racism that plagues the force? Sit back, we'll be here a while.

Jerome Chou is a freelance writer. He works part-time interviewing recently released ex-offenders about their re-entry into society.

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