Information Left Behind

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.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Council Member Peter Vallone, head of the Council’s Public Safety Committee (talk about an ironic name) are trying to get Police Chief Ray Kelly to end the practice of permanently maintaining information on the innocent, their views of the stop and frisk practice are tepid at best. 


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.”

What is meant by this is unclear.  Is she only concerned about frisking the innocent sometimes?  One might suppose that its problematic when the statistics turn out so ugly, with about 90% of stops and frisks resulting in no charges, but the question was never about the tactic, but about its use to stop and frisk people without legal justification.



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.

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.
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?

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.

6 comments on “Information Left Behind

  1. REvers

    Here in OKC, the stops are generally for (1) littering (which leads to an arrest and the corresponding search incident), or (2) a seat belt violation, which leads to a “consent” search of the vehicle.

    If it’s not one of those, it’s a “voluntary contact” which leads to, of course, a consent search.

    It drives me nuts.

  2. JWilder

    One thing I’ve never understood regarding this type of search:
    The 4th amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures.
    What the exclusionary rule does is protect us from PROSECUTIONS related to illegal searches/seizures.

    Explain how we tolerate what goes on today: Illegal searches and seizures are conducted regularly, and often with “contraband” being confiscated.

    If we really cared about the 4th amendment, shouldn’t LEs that conduct illegal searches be vulnerable to charges/suit?

    After all, the 4th amendment doesn’t say that the fruits of illegal searches/seizures cannot be used against you. It says they shouldn’t happen in the first place, and if they happen, you’ve had your rights violated.

    SGH, play devil’s advocate if you must; I’m just genuinely confused how the only “threat” against LE is that they won’t be able to use the evidence in court. They still got to humiliate and possibly take your property without a scent of right.

  3. Jdog

    In Minneapolis, all police “contacts” where the identity of anybody who isn’t a Minneapolis cop ends up in the CAPRs (pronounced “cappers”) system, where the stat of the number of “cappers” contacts for a person is easily available to cops. If you’ve been mugged three times and observed and reported on twelve accidents, say, you’ll have a Cappers of 15, which — legally speaking — doesn’t mean that you’ve ever been so much as detained on probable cause for a suspicion of a crime, but will look to a cop as though you’ve had a lot of “contacts” and are therefore even more automaticall suspect of evildoing.

    For some reason or other, folks who know about the system are reluctant to volunteer their indenity’s information to cops — even such things as “yeah, I saw that guy run the red light and smash into that other guy”, as that good deed will be punished by an increase in one’s Cappers score.

  4. SHG

    The exclusionary rule isn’t meant to protect us from prosecution, but to remedy the unreasonable search and seizure. It’s intended as a disincentive to violate the 4th Amendment.  You are absolutely right that it’s not much, and it doesn’t quite hit the cop where it hurts (since what does he care whether the defendant is convicted, as he’s made his bust, gotten credit for the seizure and won his medal), it’s all we’ve got.

    The biggest connundrum is that it’s of no consequence whatsoever when the cop engages in an unlawful search and comes up empty.  There is no remedy.  It’s like an invitation to violate the Constitution under the no harm, no foul rule.  But ask the citizen who’s put face down on the pavement, humilitated in public, subjected to abuse, touching and maybe a knock or two upside the head, and he’ll tell it’s not nearly as pleasant as judges seem to think it is.

  5. JWilder

    So if I understand you correctly, there is no precedent for bringing charges or a suit against a police officer who searches you (assuming no probable cause and comes up empty handed)?

    Are there any other items on the bill of rights that can be violated without a method for punishment of the offending party?

  6. SHG

    Theoretically, there is a 1983 action for violation of civil rights, but as a practical matter it would never fly.  As to your second question, my best advice is to read lots of posts to get the answer.

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