Last week, after a federal judge certified a class action challenging the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly outlined measures he is taking to curtail the unlawful stops that he says are not occurring. In a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Kelly said "we have republished the Department order that specifically prohibits racial profiling." That's good, because Kelly's cops seem to have lost their copies. Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reports, 87 percent of the people stopped, questioned, and (most of the time) frisked for nonexistent weapons were black or Latino. Kelly says that's because police are focusing their efforts on high-crime neighborhoods that are disproportionately black and Latino. But as NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman notes in today's New York Daily News, that explanation does not quite fit the facts:
Though they make up only 4.7% of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6% of stops in 2011. The number of stops of young black men exceeded the city’s entire population of young black men.
The commissioner contends that this happens only because officers go where the crime is. But last year, large percentages of blacks and Latinos were also stopped in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, where 77% of people stopped were black or Latino.
The racially disproportionate impact of the stops is especially troubling because the supposedly suspicious people detained by police are innocent nine times out of 10: Only 10 percent of stops result in an arrest or summons. The hit rate for pat-downs is even less impressive: Only 2 percent find weapons of any kind. Although taking guns off the street is one of the most commonly cited justifications for the stop-and-frisk program, Lieberman notes that "guns are recovered in less than 0.2% of stops—an astonishingly low yield rate for such an intrusive, humiliating and often unlawful tactic." Kelly nevertheless claims the program has saved thousands of lives during the last decade by reducing violent crime, an assertion that Lieberman calls "demonstrably false." She notes that homicides were already falling in New York before Kelly launched the stop-and-frisk program in 2003 and that since then they have declined more quickly in other big cities.
The program's meager results also raise constitutional issues. Under the 1968 Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, a stop must be based on "reasonable suspicion" that someone has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime, while a frisk is justified only when there is reasonable suspicion that he is armed.How reasonable is a suspicion that is wrong nine times out of 10, let alone 98 times out of 100? These numbers strongly suggest that police routinely ignore the "reasonable suspicion" requirement (as Mayor Michael Bloomberg has implicitly conceded).
But don't worry: Kelly says the department plans to remind police officers of their constitutional duties. It has a new training curriculum that "provides personnel with an additional level of clarity in determining when and how to conduct a lawful stop." It has approved the script for "the fifth and final part in our series of training videos regarding street encounters." Kelly also plans to keep a closer eye on the stop-and-frisk "report worksheets" that cops fill out for each encounter, which indicate the supposed basis for reasonable suspicion. The most popular excuse: "furtive movement." Finally, in an effort to improve community relations, which tend to be undermined by a decade-long program of hassling and searching innocent people with dark skin, the NYPD is encouraging officers to hand out "informational cards" durings stops that "provide a written description of the legal authority for such stops and a list of common reasons individuals are stopped by the police." Here is the short version of the text on the cards: "WHY WE ARE FUCKING WITH YOU: Because we can."