Stop-and-Frisk in New York City
The New York City Police Department is trumpeting a decrease of about one-third in the number of citizens detained under its increasingly unpopular stop-and-frisk program. The news comes as a relief, since New Yorkers, nearly all of whom were innocent of any crime, were stopped nearly 700,000 times last year.
But the problems with this program were never just the number of stops. The real test is whether police officers can both reduce the number of stops and obey the law, which requires them to have reasonable, articulable grounds for suspicion before detaining people on the streets.
This point was underscored earlier this summer, when Judge Shira Scheindlin of Federal District Court granted class action status to a lawsuit accusing the Police Department of using race as the basis for stopping and frisking New Yorkers. The judge rebuked the city for its “deeply troubling apathy toward New Yorkers’ most fundamental constitutional rights,” and found “overwhelming evidence” that the program had led to thousands of baseless, unlawful stops. Despite the police claims that the stops keep criminals and weapons off the streets, only about 6 percent of stops lead to arrests, and last year, only one in every 879 stops turned up a gun.
Asked to explain the recent drop in stops, police officers told The Times that many sergeants conducting roll calls had stopped emphasizing the need to stop and question people on street. According to the department, it conducted 203,500 stops in January, February and March of this year — a record number — but stopped only 133,934 in April, May and June. Even so, it will most likely be several weeks before a data analysis by the lawyers in the class action suit, Floyd v. City of New York, provides a detailed sense of whether the trend toward illegal and discriminatory stops has indeed subsided.
News accounts continue to illustrate how the program has alienated communities of color. This week, for example, Wendy Ruderman reported in The Times about a little-discussed aspect of the program — the humiliating toll that it has taken on women, who say that male police officers have singled them out without cause for invasive searches and harassment.
In one case, a woman said she was sitting on the front steps of her home in the Bronx on a recent summer night when police officers rifled through her handbag, fishing out a tampon, a sanitary napkin and finally birth control pills, about which they questioned her. Another young woman from Harlem Heights said police officers who claimed to be searching for a rapist interrupted her and two female friends, demanded identification and then patted her down. “It was uncalled-for,” she said. “It made no sense. How are you going to stop three females when you are supposedly looking for a male rapist?”
People who have been singled out for unjustified searches have expressed similar sentiments all over the city. The longer those searches continue, the more public discontent will grow.