Stop and frisk on trial
Police can stop, question and frisk anyone. A police sergeant said “they might live there but we own the block.” His voice was taped in secret. However the war on Blacks and Latinos is no secret.
Protesters chanted, “They say get back. We say fight back.” Tensions were high; security tight. In this six week long Federal class action trial, intricate details of New York City’s police department stop, question, and frisk practices are being exposed. This case, Floyd v. City of New York, was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). David Floyd, a medical student, African-American, was stopped twice by NYPD.
Any verdict will have a national effect because New York City has an internationally respected police force. However, in 2011, the New York City Police Department (NYPD) detained nearly 700,000 people. Of those, almost 80 percent were African Americans and Latinos, mostly males. With five million stops recorded since 2004, only 12 percent resulting in arrest or summons, a core issue in the Floyd case is NYPD allegedly bolstering its productivity reports with baseless stops of Blacks and Latinos.
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court gave police officers broad authority to stop and pat down, or frisk. Terry v. Ohio allows an officer to stop and frisk when there is reasonable suspicion of imminent danger. It appears the imminent danger requirement has been forgotten. Work-related productivity goals, not danger, is motivating NYPD.
Fifteen New York City attorneys were present in court. Paralegals, investigators, administrative assistants, and secretaries comprised the battalion of tax-payer paid experts used to defend ‘stop and frisk’ procedures. New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly argue it is as invaluable tool to curb gun violence. CCR intends to prove the city is violating the constitutional rights of Blacks and Latinos with suspicion-less stops. NYPD lost the first ‘stop and frisk’ case, Ligon v. City of New York, challenging its ‘Clean Halls’ practices.
Police “stop and frisk” activity is allegedly linked to efforts to appear productive. Expert Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay College, has written about officers being pressured to manipulate numbers. Downgrading violent crimes makes the city appear safer. Increasing stops in certain communities makes officers appear more productive. Higher productivity could result in promotions, vacation time, and a day-time work schedule – “dollars for collars.”
Testimony revealed if certain officers did not have enough arrests or summons then supervisors “would find you a collar.” Refusing to make the numbers could lead to poor evaluations, denial of requests for days off, and humiliating work assignments.
A secret tape revealed a standing order to stop Black teenagers. An Inspector is heard saying “male Blacks, 14-21” fit the description since they commit most of the crimes. However, no specific crimes were given. Testimony revealed police willing to stop innocent people 90 percent of the time if it meant finding something illegal, not necessarily guns, 10 percent of the time.
The UF 250 is the NYPD form for stop, question, and frisk. Testimony revealed police sergeants, at roll call, coaxing officers to write tickets and especially 250s. “There is plenty of crime out there,” the taped voice reminded officers at the beginning of their shift.
Stop, question, and frisk gives officers power to detain. In New York City, boys are stopped while fixing a bicycle on the sidewalk. Men are stopped while chatting in front of a Prince Hall Mason Lodge. Girls are stopped walking from school. Teens are stopped standing at bus stops. Witnesses testified to the lingering trauma of being arbitrarily stopped by police.
On tape, a sergeant is heard telling his officers, the “less people on the street, the easier our job is.” “They all have warrants anyway,” the secretly taped sergeant told officers before leaving the precinct to ‘protect and serve’ a Brooklyn community. No accusation of a crime is needed. An officer can merely say, “You fit the description.”
NYPD’s policy allows an officer to touch any man, woman or child. Stepping in from behind, he slides his hands over an adult or child’s legs, arms, buttock, chest, back and head. Without movement or complaint, women and men must submit to a stranger feeling their body in search of evidence.
An officer can force a detained person into a “vertical.” A vertical requires lying on the ground, waiting in rain, cold, or filth, on public display, for the officer to give an order to rise. A female sergeant is taped suggesting more verticals. “Shine a light in their faces” because it could provoke a confrontation leading to an arrest.
An arrest is more productivity. NYPD’s 250 form contains a box titled “furtive movement.” Furtive movement is cause for arrest. It could be a threat or suspicious action or nothing at all. The 250 form does not require evidence of “furtive movement.” Testimony revealed no NYPD supervisor scrutinizes UF 250s for evidence of abuse like racial profiling. Officers need only check a box.
Then, a quota is made. A life is changed.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a legal correspondent covering major trials and the U.S. Supreme Court. Twitter: @GBrowneMarshall