When it comes to New York Police Department tactics, few provoke as much debate as “Stop and Frisk.” Last year, the NYPD performed 685,724 stops. Stephen Davis, a resident of Harlem, was one of them.
“I was on 125th Street, coming out an apartment and police stopped me and two friends because they said we looked suspicious. They stopped us and they frisked us. They found two bags of marijuana on me. I spent 90 days in jail because of that,” Davis explained while standing outside a deli in Harlem’s Little Senegal.
“They wouldn’t have looked at me twice if I was white. We were just walking, no probable cause. I know they do it to look for weapons but I didn’t have no weapons on me.”
The fact that Davis served jail time makes his case rare. Last year, police uncovered contraband in only two percent of stops and made arrests in just six percent of them. Another six percent resulted in summonses while 88 percent resulted in nothing at all. Nevertheless, the use of this strategy has risen by over 600 percent since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002.
Candis Tolliver, an organizer at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), has heard countless stories like Davis’s. Her organization has played a central role in writing and presenting new legislation to the City Council that would prevent what they term illegal stops.
“The police’s own data shows that Stop and Frisk isn’t effective. It sows seeds of distrust between communities of color and the NYPD. There are other things that the NYPD could be doing instead of relying on a tactic that violates civil rights,” she said.
Central to Tolliver’s point is the fact that 84 percent of those stopped last year were black or Latino even though they make up about half of the city’s population. She argues that this shows that the NYPD is employing another divisive tactic, racial profiling.
Calls and emails to the mayor and police commissioner Raymond Kelley’s office yielded no comment on the subject of racial profiling or the efficacy of Stop and Frisk. However, Mayor Bloomberg is already on record as a huge proponent of the method, previously claiming that, during his tenure, it has gotten close to 6,000 guns off the street and played a part in saving 5,600 lives.
Dennis Smith, a professor of public policy at the Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, is another proponent. According to him, Stop and Frisk and other types of “proactive policing” haven’t just helped New York consistently lower its crime rate, but other cities have benefited from their use as well.
“When Philadelphia was making stops at a higher rate per capita than New York, crime declined, but violent crime began to rise when the stops were reduced after a consent decree following a legal challenge,” he wrote in an Op-Ed piece on the New York Times website.
Smith, who is a paid consultant for the NYPD in Stop and Frisk-related litigation, highlighted Los Angeles as another example of a city where crime dropped when stops were increased. He also asserts that these procedures are “most beneficial for black and Hispanic communities that experience the greatest victimization rates.”
Tolliver is unconvinced by this interpretation. She and the NYCLU have joined Communities for Police Reform in putting forth legislation in the City Council that would add new regulations to how NYPD officers go about stopping, questioning, and frisking a suspect. The Community Safety Act includes four bills aimed at limiting the NYPD’s reliance on Stop and Frisk.
The first bill (Intro 799) would force police officers to explain that a search can be refused in the absence of a warrant or probable cause. The second bill (Intro 800) would protect against discriminatory profiling. Intro 801 would require police officers to identify themselves by name and rank, and offer a business card that includes information on how to file a complaint. Finally, the fourth bill (Intro 881) would establish an NYPD Inspector General’s office to provide oversight and review NYPD policies, making changes where necessary.
Lawyer Michael Best represented the Bloomberg administration at the first Community Safety Act hearing on October 10 and argued that it isn’t within the City Council’s purview to regulate Stop and Frisk. In his understanding, it is a matter of state law.
Others challenged Best’s claim, and Tolliver adds that there is a great deal of backing for all four of the bills within the Council. As of October 19, the search consent bill had 29 cosponsors, the anti-profiling bill had 30, the NYPD identification bill had 30, and the Inspector General bill had 31. That is enough for each of them to pass. However, supporters are seeking at least 34 cosponsors to sign onto each bill. That would create a supermajority and prevent the mayor from exercising a veto.
On a national scale, the ideas put forth in the Community Safety Act are not entirely novel. The anti-profiling aspect is similar to federal legislation titled End Racial Profiling Act. Comparable state regulations exist in Arkansas, West Virginia, and Illinois. Meanwhile, police officers in Colorado and West Virginia are required to indicate the right to refuse a search. Additionally, police in Minnesota, Arkansas, and Colorado are instructed to identify themselves when performing a search.
Smith’s mention of Philadelphia as an example is notable because the city reached an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in June to establish extra training on Stop and Frisk practices, to create an electronic database of stops made, and an independent monitor who could review the files.
If the Community Safety Act is adopted, New York will soon have similar protocols. Tolliver doesn’t want to speculate on when that could be. She is now focused on allaying the concerns of undecided Council members and is convinced that passing the bills would be a step in the right direction for the United States’ biggest police force. Her hope is that similar legislation will be presented and accepted in more states.
“A lot of cities look to New York and the NYPD as leaders in many ways and we want them to look at us as such,” she said.
“They might think, if they can pass that there then maybe we can do the same here to prevent police from conducting unlawful searches.”