NEW YORK -- It was one word that struck me. More than any other word spoken over the past 10 weeks of court testimony in Floyd v. City of New York, the civil trial questioning the New York Police Department’s policy of “Stop, Question and Frisk."
In over 8,000 pages of official court transcripts from the trial that ended on Monday, it is spoken time and time again by sergeants, precinct commanders and current and former high ranking officers within the police department. The question being replied to was a variation on this: “Does it bother you that in the vast majority, nine out of 10 stops, no enforcement action was taken? No summons, no arrest, no weapons found?”
This is perhaps the heart of the case that the Center for Constitutional Rights brought to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s courtroom on the 15th floor of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. Authorities see no wrongdoing, despite the fact that over the past decade, NYPD officers have conducted nearly 4.5 million stops in a city of 8 million. Eighty-five percent of those stopped were black or Latino, meaning that many people have been stopped more than once.
During the bench trial, members of the press were seated in the jury box, a metaphor not lost on me. As a New Yorker of color, and one who has been stopped by the police, I had an intense personal interest in the trial. Perhaps it’s also because I have spent much of the past 10 years outside the country as a foreign correspondent, watching from afar as my city and country changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 to prize security above nearly all else. Back in New York for a few months, I decided to spend some time observing the trial.
When I was stopped, on a train platform after visiting my mother’s house in central Brooklyn, two white officers came up to me and asked if they could look in my bag. There had been a robbery, they explained, and were looking for a suspect. I knew my rights. I could have refused to consent to a search of my bag. I also wanted to get home and my train was coming. If I refused, would they hold me anyway? Would they ask me for my ID and run a background check? Maybe, maybe not. At that moment I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, so I agreed. They didn’t find anything, politely thanked me for my time and moved on. No form was filled out.
Apparently, I fit a description.
Both in the press and in the courtroom, the city’s lawyers as well as NYPD officials defended Stop-and-Frisk as an important law enforcement tool that gets guns off the streets and stops crime.
However, less than one percent of all stops results in the discovery of a weapon and only 0.14 percent of all stops results in finding a gun. This, despite the fact that “suspicious bulge” or “furtive movement” is the box ticked off on the form that officers are required to fill out in a large percentage of stops.
As a journalist I’ve had my fair share of encounters with NYPD officers. A few of those instances weren’t what I would have wanted them to be. But in reporting multiple series on the 28th precinct in Harlem and after spending many days riding in radio cars, standing on rooftops and walking the streets with a variety of policemen and women, I can say I have a broader perspective on the department than most. Most officers and commanders care deeply about the communities they serve. That’s why they became cops.
But as we learned in the trial, the NYPD is, among other things, a bureaucracy. The plaintiffs claim that this bureaucracy is obsessed with numbers and passed that obsession down to the rank and file through “performance goals,” which they claim is just another way to say quota.
When the recording that Officer Pedro Serrano made of his superior Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack telling the officer that he needed to stop “the right people” was played, eyebrows were raised. When pressed by the officer to tell him who these people were, McCormack’s response was “male blacks 14 to 20, 21.”
The department denies this was a blatant call for racial profiling but instead a commander telling his staff to address a specific problem. They have repeatedly told us that while a high number of blacks and Latinos are being stopped, the vast majority of perpetrators, as well as victims of crime, are black and Latino -- so it makes sense that these people would also be stopped and questioned.
Missing from that logic is the fact that in order for a stop to be legal, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has just happened, is in progress, or will in the near future be committed. Putting aside the frightening idea of “future crime” for a moment, this suspicion must also be specific to the person being stopped. Simply being a black male in an area where black males commit crime is not enough.
We'll soon discover whether or not Judge Scheindlin agrees.
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