As Critics United, Stalled Battle Against Frisking Tactic Took Off

Print Friendly and PDF

The New York Times, J. David Goodman

August, 2013
As the Police Department performed a mounting number of stops on New York streets, voices of opposition, slow and scattershot, struggled to be heard.

Complaints, mostly from minority areas, never quite coalesced into a movement. Police officials and city leaders casually dismissed opponents, denying that the stops were race-based and pointing to the plummeting crime rate as justification for the tactics.

The stops continued to rise by the tens of thousands, as police officials pushed to drive crime levels even lower. And although the dialogue never changed, the slow unmaking of the stop-and-frisk strategy had quietly begun.

In a 16th-floor conference room in TriBeCa, roughly 40 different groups of researchers, lawyers and community activists gathered in June 2011 to plan a unified political attack on the policing practice to go along with the one being mounted in the federal courts.

The groups coalesced under one name, Communities United for Police Reform, fanning out into neighborhoods with heavy police activity and becoming a regular and loud presence at rallies on the steps of City Hall and outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan. The mantra: Change the Police Department.

Their efforts, backed by $2.2 million in grants from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, set the stage for a stunning repudiation of what has become the department’s signature street-level tactic, long defended by successive mayoral administrations.

In the City Council in late June and in a federal court on Monday, the Police Department suffered severe setbacks to its crime policy, and is now facing a court-ordered monitor, two police oversight bills and the possibility that its perceived legacy of a significant decline in crime may come with an asterisk.

“They redefined it successfully,” said Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, crediting advocates from the Communities United for Police Reform, which includes the civil liberties group, the Center for Constitutional Rights, that brought the federal suit, Floyd v. City of New York.

“By using data we’re required to produce,” Mr. Browne said, the advocates managed to reframe the debate over the stop-and-frisk policy as a numbers-oriented calculation of how often the police interactions resulted in arrests or summonses.

In a vast majority of the recorded stops, officers cited a reason other than fitting the description of a suspect as being the basis. And in nearly 90 percent of the cases, the person stopped was neither arrested nor given a summons.

“Stop-and-frisk isn’t stopping criminals,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It is stopping innocent people.”

The battle over police stops in New York has many origins, but most see its beginnings in the killing of Amadou Diallo by a team of specialized police officers, who shot the man as he stood in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building in 1999. That violent encounter — in the course of a stop on a darkened street — led to a report by Eliot Spitzer, then the state attorney general, titled “The New York City Police Department’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ Practices.”

“Obviously the killing of Diallo was a flash point,” said Andrew G. Celli Jr., who as the head of the civil rights bureau under Mr. Spitzer worked on the report. “But underneath it was a seething sense that people were living in a police state.”

The report shined a light on an area of policing that remained largely cloaked during the administration of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a time when data about police stops were not public, and advocates sparred more often with the department over individual actions by officers than over broad policy.

Once it became clear that the department collected detailed data on stops — from the UF-250 forms filled out by officers for each interaction — a push began for more access. The Council passed a law in 2001 requiring the department to release data on stops, including by race.

“I don’t think anybody understood at the time how important that legislation was,” said Ms. Lieberman, of the civil liberties union. “But this is a classic example of how a fight over transparency supports a campaign for reform.”

The first release of data, for stops in 2002, showed that a little more than 50 percent of the stops were of blacks and about 31 percent were of Hispanics, roughly the same as during the period studied in the Spitzer report.

To the department, those numbers made sense, because they roughly matched the racial breakdown of suspects identified by witnesses or victims of crimes. It is an argument still made forcefully by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as it was by Mr. Giuliani when he was mayor.

Yet after taking office, Mr. Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, seemed willing to move past the issue. The city settled a lawsuit, brought shortly after the Diallo killing by the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the unit responsible for the shooting was dissolved. Under terms of the settlement, it modified the UF-250 form and created a written policy against racial profiling.

At the same time, the number of stops quietly rose each year.

The police shooting of Sean Bell, in 2006, set the stage for a new confrontation with advocates, who began asking again about data on stops. The New York Civil Liberties Union found that the department had not released it to the Council in years.

When the new stop data were finally released in 2007, the numbers were startling: 508,540 stops in 2006, up from 97,296 four years earlier. Civil rights lawyers filed the Floyd suit the next year. (The suit takes its name from David Floyd, a Bronx man who said he had been stopped more than once by the police and who served as lead plaintiff in the class action.)

Advocates from different groups — including, among others, the Legal Aid Society, Make the Road New York, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice — began meeting informally.

But it was not until the first large meeting in June 2011 at 75 Varick Street, and the creation of the single coalition, that momentum began to gather, said Joo-Hyun Kang, the coalition’s director. “We’re talking about a year and a half, which is not a long time period to pass what I’d call landmark legislation,” she said, referring to a pair of oversight bills passed by the Council. (The bills were vetoed by Mr. Bloomberg; an override vote is planned for this month.)

For Mr. Celli, the former state civil rights lawyer, the Police Department missed several opportunities to change itself in ways that might have avoided a public backlash.

“They should have embraced the I.G. and sought to frame exactly what the person’s powers would be,” he said, referring to one of the bills creating an inspector general for the police. The other, a more direct response to the stop-and-frisk policy, would expand the ability of New Yorkers to sue the department over bias-based profiling.

The federal judge in the stop-and-frisk case, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, was more critical of the police, finding the department to be “deliberately indifferent to the discriminatory application of stop and frisk.”

Nonetheless, by last year, the department began to change, significantly dropping the number of stops. Commissioner Kelly denied that political pressure or the court case led to the decline, saying it had been the result of redeployment and better training.

Whatever the explanation, after record highs in the first quarter of 2012, the number of stops plummeted to near record lows by early 2013.

Jeffrey A. Fagan, a Columbia University law professor who testified against the city in the Floyd case, said the Police Department did not open itself up for self-criticism on the issue of stops.

“They became defiant about sticking to the story,” he said. “And they dismissed any questioning as being grumpy old civil rights advocates.”