Courts Expose Stop-and-Frisk as Racist, Unconstitutional
NYPD Harassment Strategy: 8 Important Facets of the Legal
A US district judge has exposed the NYPD game as an
illegal system of quotas and racial profiling imposed on
field police from the top of the NYPD.
By Kristen Gwynne
May 28, 2012
This month, a federal judge in New York dealt a blow to
"stop-and-frisk," a policy that resulted in 685,000
recorded police stops in 2011. Eighty-five percent of
those stopped were African American and Latino, mostly
US district judge Shira Scheindlin granted class-action
certification to a stop-and-frisk lawsuit against the city
of New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and Mayor
Michael Bloomberg. The plaintiffs allege that the NYPD's
stop-and-frisk policy regularly violates the Constitution
by illegally stopping and searching scores of people
belonging to a particular demographic -- black and Latino.
Pending the city's appeal, the class-action ruling will
put stop-and-frisk on trial.
Plaintiffs in Floyd et al. vs City of New York also argue
that they were stopped by police who did not have the
legally necessary "reasonable suspicion" that they had
committed or were going to commit a crime. What's more,
the suit alleges, police often performed frisks, but not
because they saw a bulge they suspected to be a weapon,
another legal requirement.
In her written decision, Scheindlin said the alleged
constitutional violations result not from the actions of
rogue officers, but from a policy handed down from the
very top. "The stop-and-frisk program is centralized and
hierarchical," said Scheindlin, "Those stops were made
pursuant to a policy that is designed, implemented and
monitored by the NYPD's administration."
Scheindlin's ruling cites "overwhelming evidence" -- a
spike in stop-and-frisks and the NYPD's own words --
indicating that at the "highest levels of the department,"
police are enforcing a policy that leaves behind a trail
of daily injustices.
For years, Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly
have used distortions and misinformation to promote and
justify a policy that violates the constitutional rights
of those who were stopped. Now, the Scheindlin findings
have exposed the NYPD game for what it is, an illegal
system of quotas and racial profiling imposed on field
police from the top of the NYPD.
"Suspicionless stops should never occur," Scheindlin wrote
in her decision, adding that, "Defendants' cavalier
attitude towards the prospect of a'"widespread practice of
suspicionless stops' displays a deeply troubling apathy
towards New Yorkers' most fundamental constitutional
rights." Stop-and-frisk, which the data shows is a form of
racial profiling, violates not only the Fourth Amendment
-- protection from unreasonable searches -- but also the
14th Amendment, which includes the equal protection
clause, the plaintiffs charge.
The Scheindlin decision was informative and comprehensive,
including a number of important facts and observations.
Here are eight important points from the decision.
1. Soaring numbers. The rate of stops has grown
exponentially under the Bloomberg administration.
Scheindlin's ruling notes that police conducted 2.8
million documented stops of people between 2004 and 2009,
about half of whom were frisked. In contrast, in 1998,
Scheindlin explains, NYPD officers made roughly 150,000
stops per year. In 2004 alone, officers recorded more than
313,000 stops, "and since then the number has increased
every year except 2007, rising to over 684,000 in 2011."
Scheindlin cites the large increase as evidence of a
centralized policy change.
2. No reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion that a
person is involved in a crime is necessary for a legal
stop. Eighty-eight percent of those stopped, however, are
not charged with any crime. As Scheindlin noted, the data
shows that "according to their own records and judgment,
officers' 'suspicion' was wrong nearly nine times out of
3. Imaginary bulges. Officers' suspicions were similarly
unsubstantiated when reportedly searching for guns. A
"suspicious bulge" was cited as a reason for about 10
percent of all stops, but guns were seized in less than 1
percent. "For every 69 stops that police officers
justified specifically on the basis of a suspicious bulge,
they found one gun," the decision notes.
4. Stops for no reason. The absence of a legally
necessary, interpretable "suspected crime" cited on
official forms grew from 1.1 percent in 2004 to 35.9
percent (more than 200,000 reported stops) in 2009. During
those years, "Overall, in more than half a million
documented stops -- 18.4 percent of the total -- officers
listed no coherent suspected crime," Scheindlin wrote,
meaning they either ignored the section altogether or did
not cite suspected behavior that is indeed illegal.
5. Unlawful stops. "According to their own explanations
for their actions, NYPD officers conducted at least
170,000 unlawful stops between 2004 and 2009," Scheindlin
wrote. Stops based on nothing more than "furtive movement"
or a "high-crime area" were the justifications of at least
100,000 stops, but as Scheindlin says, are illegal due to
the Fourth Amendment law protecting Americans from
6. Racial profiling. The NYPD's stop-and-frisk program
targets blacks and Latinos because of their skin color.
Scheindlin admitted the testimony of Columbia University
professor Jeffrey Fagan, who found that police stopped
blacks and Latinos far more than white residents. Isolated
from other factors like crime rates and neighborhood
racial composition, racial disparity from racial targeting
was statistically significant, strongly underscoring that
skin color is the essential factor in determining who gets
stopped, and throwing weight behind allegations of 14th
Amendment violations. Fagan's research also found that
"the search for weapons is (a) unrelated to crime (b)
takes place primarily where weapons offenses are less
frequent than other crimes, and (c) is targeted at places
where the black and Hispanic populations are highest."
Cops are more likely to list no suspected crime category,
or what Scheindlin called "an incoherent one," like
"furtive movements," when stopping blacks and Latinos than
when stopping whites. They are also more likely to use
force against people of color.
7. NYPD illegal quotas. Scheindlin links the rising number
of stops and the targeting of black and Latinos to NYPD
quotas, and to Commissioner Kelly's own admission that the
NYPD has a quota policy, albeit disguised. In a recent
operations order, Commissioner Kelly explained
departmental policy under the euphemism "performance
goal." Kelly said in the order, "Department managers can
and must set performance goals," for "the issuance of
summonses, the stopping and questioning of suspicious
individuals, and the arrests of criminals."
The order also explains a weekly review during which a
sergeant compares each officer's monthly "activity" with
the "daily assignment," whereby police who "do not
demonstrate activities" -- or keep their numbers up --
"will be evaluated accordingly and their assignments
re-assessed." In other words, there will be consequences
for officers who don't meet quotas, even though New York
labor law says penalizing cops for failing to meet quotas
Former NYPD officers turned whistleblowers Adhyl Polanco
and Adrian Schoolcraft have collected evidence documenting
NYPD quotas in practice. From 2008 to 2009, Polanco, from
the 41st Precinct, and Schoolcraft, from the 81st,
recorded roll calls revealing supervisors' and other
high-ranking officers' enforcement of quotas. In
Scheindlin's own words, Schoolcraft's audio files expose
supervisors "repeatedly telling officers to conduct
unlawful stops and arrests and explaining that the
instructions for higher performance numbers are coming
down the chain of command."
Similarly, Polanco testified that "his commanding officers
announced specific quotas for arrests and summons (quotas
that rose dramatically between early 2008 and 2009) and
for UF-250s" (a term for the forms used in stops), said
Scheindlin, "and threatened overtime and undesirable
assignments for those who failed to meet them."
8. Repeat performances. According to the NYCLU, in 2011
the NYPD stopped more young, black men than live in New
York; i.e. some individuals are stopped and frisked
repeatedly. To protect their rights, plaintiffs are
seeking "systemic relief" -- an end to the
unconstitutional practice of stop-and-frisk.
Kristen Gwynne covers drugs at AlterNet. She graduated
from New York University with a degree in journalism and
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