The travesty of New York City Police Department’s “stop and frisk” practices and statistics are well known, with well over half a million people stopped for no good reason and climbing. The “why” was recently answered by Police Officer Adil Polanco, who gave up the quota demands, explaining why cops feel forced to turn kids coming home from school into perps spread eagle on the ground.
What hasn’t been talked about is the information taken from the 90% of New Yorkers who have learned the joys of their cheek being held down to the pavement by a cop’s boot while questioned and groped, only to be cut loose when their imaginations failed them and not a single charge could be invented. Forms are filled out, data is input. Information about a person who has done absolutely nothing wrong goes into the computer version of the Hotel California.
Bob Herbert at the New York Times challenges this practice.
This is not a small problem. The cops are making more than a half-million of these stops every year. A vast majority of the people targeted — close to 90 percent — are completely innocent. They are not arrested. They are not given a summons. After enduring a mortifying public encounter with the police — which frequently requires the targets to sprawl face down on the sidewalk or spread themselves against a wall or over the hood of a car to be searched — they are sent on their way.
What they’ve left behind, however, if they’ve shown their identification to the cops or answered any questions, is a permanent record of the encounter, which is promptly entered into the department’s staggeringly huge computerized files. Why the Police Department should be keeping files on innocent people is a question with no legitimate answer. This is Big Brother in Blue, with Commissioner Kelly collecting more information than J. Edgar Hoover could ever have imagined compiling.
Ms. Quinn does not oppose the tactic of stopping and frisking people, but said, “I have concerns that we have become overly aggressive in our use of it.” She said additional guidelines or regulations are needed. “I wouldn’t eliminate it from the Police Department toolbox,” she said, “but I would like to find a way to better monitor it and limit its use.”
The reasons given by the cops for deciding which unfortunate New Yorkers will be stopped are beyond bogus. A “furtive movement” is the most popular. Walking down the street in broad daylight qualifies. And then there is always the bulge in the pocket. A cellphone, maybe. Or an iPod.How does Ms. Quinn propose it be used “less aggressively?” Should the new rule prohibit cops from flagrantly violating constitutional rights by stopping innocent people to meet their quotas? Do we need a rule to say this? Or do we need a way to cut out the subterfuge that results in more than half a million people unlawfully frisked on the streets of New York City?
The truth — and many police officers will tell you this privately — is that the stops are often made first and the justification is dreamed up later.
But the humiliation doesn’t end with the frisk, as the collection of data on innocent people wrongfully touched by the cops is hardly benign. There are few things more powerful in creating an atmosphere of false fear than reciting to a judge at arraignment the defendant’s prior “experience” with the police. The fabric of stop and frisk can be woven into a story that gives the impression of a person who has cunningly engaged in a life of crime and merely avoided detection despite the brave efforts of police.
Of course, the image on the tapestry is completely false, a baseless stop or two that ends up creating the appearance of a history of wrongdoing, of getting one past the cops despite their best efforts, rather than a history of cops routinely stopping and frisking to meet their quotas in the hope of finding something that will buy then some overtime and the good will of their supervisor. When these allegations arise, there is little to be said about it, since the defendant was sent on his way without arrest and the content of the police computer report was crafted by the cops and otherwise unchallenged. The allegations supporting the stop and frisk can say pretty much anything, and there’s not a thing to be done to question, correct or challenge it. It becomes a part of a defendant’s reality, no matter how unreal it is.
Putting an end to the practice on the streets, particularly when the claimed basis is that the police have a reasonable basis to engage in the stop and frisk, will only come when the people have had enough of kissing the concrete of New York’s sidewalks. And that won’t happen until the practice shifts from St. Nicholas Avenue to Park Avenue. But the insult added to injury, the computer database of the innocent, can be eliminated, if the Mayor or City Council shows the stones to force Kelly to do so.
In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt for judges to remember that cops are forced to recite the words “furtive movement” over and over at the Academy, just in case they ever need to come up with a post-hoc excuse. Those on stop and frisk duty need such excuses more than half a million times a year. That’s a lot of furtive movements.