Mar 1 2012

Stopping Short on Stop and Frisk

NYT reports racist policy but won’t call for its end

Photo Credit: New York Times

Photo Credit: New York Times

The New York Times (12/1/99) reported in 1999 the finding of an investigation by state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer that the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” program unfairly targeted black and Hispanic people.

“Police officials have long contended that the disparity was based on the fact that most people are stopped in poor, high-crime neighborhoods, many of which have a majority of black and Hispanic residents,” the story explained. “But the attorney general’s analysis found that, even when the statistics were adjusted to take higher crime rates among minorities into account, the number of blacks and Hispanics stopped still far exceeded the number of whites stopped.”

By law, police must be able to state a “reasonable suspicion” of a crime in order to stop someone, and have a reasonable belief that a person is “armed and dangerous” before they can frisk them. The story revealed that analysts found many instances of legally unjustified stops, “cases in which officers wrote that they had stopped people who were merely standing on a corner or carrying a heavy bag,” and also noted that the city only released the records necessary for the investigation after Spitzer threatened to subpoena them.

The Times (12/4/99) reacted to the news in an editorial. The evidence of dramatic and systemic unfair police treatment based on race, the paper said, “raised troubling questions.” While Police Commissioner Howard Safir claimed that police only stop people of color who “fit the description” of suspects provided by victims, the fact that the study showed that less than a third of stops occur because officers believe the person fits a description “raised the possibility” that “judgments based on race figured in many stops.”

In sum, the revelations “should prompt police to take a closer look at the arrest process.”

The next year (4/28/00), Times readers learned about a report from the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board showing that “police routinely fail to file the required paperwork after frisking or searching people,” though the records, called UF250s, are a key measure of police accountability. Those findings “echo a draft report by the United States Civil Rights Commission, which said that the Police Department’s own data suggested that its officers engaged in racial profiling during stop-and-frisk encounters.”

That too got an editorial response (4/30/00). The widespread failure of police to provide the basic information critical to determining the fairness of a controversial program, declared the Times, “raises questions,” and “encourages the belief that the department is hiding something.”

The Times has now delivered more than 10 years’ worth of such editorial timidities on stop and frisk, despite an equal period of solid reporting on the practice that demands that people of color accept that they can be physically and verbally harassed by state authority anywhere at any time.

When the NYPD commissioned its own research in 2007, which indicated that people of color and white people are stopped at roughly equal rates, for example, local tabloids went with “NYPD Cleared in Frisks” (Daily News, 11/21/07). But the Times’ Al Baker (11/21/07) foregrounded the study’s finding that “officers are more likely to frisk, search, arrest or give summonses to black or Hispanic people—or to use force against them.” The report didn’t provide explanation for that disparity, but Baker offered a clue, citing a passage that read, “If black suspects are likelier to flee or resist, the observed difference in rates of force may not be due to officer bias,” and noting a critic’s reaction that that sounded more like a search for justification than analysis.

The paper has reported repeatedly on the federal lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the city’s response. Readers have heard (many times) the assertion of NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne (e.g., 5/20/10) that police target black and brown people based simply on how much crime they commit; “for instance, while 55 percent of stops in the first three months of this year involved black people, 66 percent of violent crimes involved suspects described as black, he said.”

But the same story also cites Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School, who disputes the numbers on violent crime, and notes that the comparison of stops of black people with crimes involving suspects identified as black (also the basis for the city’s 2007 study) is specious, as police report suspects’ race only in cases where it is known, which leaves out 7 out of 10 crimes. (A June 18, 2003, Times story reported research from the Civilian Complaint Review Board that “most street searches are based not on complaints about crimes,” in any event, “but on officers’ judgment about a suspect.”)

As well as giving opponents of stop and frisk a more respectful hearing than they were getting elsewhere (“Stop and Frisk Law Caught My Husband’s Murderers,” New York Post, 7/18/10), the Times occasionally did the sort of shoe-leather reporting that gives issues like this concreteness and complexity, like the paper’s July 12, 2010, front-pager on an eight-block area in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, where police made some 52,000 stops in a four-year period, or “nearly one stop a year for every one of the 14,000 residents.”

The reporters—Baker, Ray Rivera and Janet Roberts—note that the high number is linked to the fact that much of the area is public housing, and police can use violations of Housing Authority rules to justify stops. They observe numerous people being stopped for entering buildings without using a key, for instance, even where locks are obviously broken. Young men of color are stopped, patted down and warrant-checked for spitting, or riding bikes on the sidewalk: “One night, 20 officers surrounded a man outside the Brownsville Houses after he would not let an officer smell the contents of his orange juice container.”

Official declamations about police discretion and the program’s “significant impact” on crime are included, but take on a different light alongside such real-world observations, including the fundamental one that few of the stops lead to arrests—1 percent in Brownsville vs. 6 percent citywide. (A Manhattan Supreme Court Justice would later say that police in housing projects “appeared to be routinely flouting the law by questioning people without legal justification”—New York Times, 12/23/10.)

The Brownsville story also provided a little background on Terry v. Ohio, the 1968 Supreme Court case that allows police to detain and search someone without probable cause to arrest, if they have a “reasonable suspicion” the person “has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime” and a reasonable belief that the person “may be armed and presently dangerous.” The officer in that case, readers were told, “had patrolled the same streets of downtown Cleveland for 30 years looking for pickpockets and shoplifters. By contrast, the nearly 200 officers who operate” in Brownsville “are largely on their first assignment out of the academy.”

Even a suggestion of alternative approaches, like smarter, community-based policing, is notable in a media conversation where alternatives are generally unmentioned, leaving the impression that we must choose between fairness and crime.

The Times’ subsequent editorial (7/14/10) was all the more disheartening. Opposing the NYPD plan to maintain a permanent database with the names of every person stopped, whether or not they are arrested, the Times cited its Brownsville report, declaring, “It is simply unacceptable to put innocent New Yorkers under permanent suspicion because they happened to be walking down a street in a minority neighborhood.”

Of course, research shows black and brown people more likely to be stopped whatever neighborhood they’re in—high-crime or low-crime, where people of color are the majority and where they aren’t. As the paper reported in 1999.

When data emerged showing that, largely due to stop and frisk, black and Hispanic people have higher arrest rates for marijuana, despite using it at lower rates than white people, the Times’ Jim Dwyer engaged the hypocrisy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who famously declared, “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it,” when asked if he’d smoked pot.

“A Smell of Pot And Privilege In the City” (7/21/10) contrasted marijuana arrests in Brownsville (3,109 for every 100,000 residents in a three-year period) with those on the Upper East Side (20 for every 100,000 residents). Of the debate over pot’s legalization, Dwyer wrote: “In truth, in New York, the debate was over before it began. For blacks and Latinos, it is very, very illegal. But not in Mr. Bloomberg’s neighborhood.”

More recently (6/15/11), Dwyer interrogated the mayor’s dismissal of the concern that young people’s arrests would hinder their life chances—questioning mayoral aide Frank Barry’s assertion that “they are not saddled with criminal records because those records are sealed.” Wrote Dwyer, “Asked if the mayor’s office believed that people who had been arrested but had received a dismissal could honestly answer ‘No’ if they were ever questioned by employers or colleges, Mr. Barry did not directly reply.”

The paper’s editorial on the matter (9/27/11) called for lawmakers to “investigate” the practices that have led to hundreds of thousands of arrests. The program has “damaged young lives,” said the paper. As such, it “deserves deeper scrutiny.”

The next month, the Times (10/18/11) reported the case of Staten Island officer Michael Daraghjati, who told a friend he had “fried another nigger…. No big deal,” after falsifying an arrest report on a man he had stopped and searched without finding anything, who had questioned the officer’s reason for stopping him. The next day’s editorial enjoined lawmakers “to investigate whether others on the force are engaging in similar practices.”

The following month (11/7/11) the Times endorsed the creation of the independent oversight agency called for “almost 20 years ago,” declaring that charges of racism in stop and frisk (along with high-profile corruption cases) “raised disturbing doubts” about the police department and “its ability to root out its own problems.” Some sort of oversight is needed, the paper said, as “right now there is no way of judging whether the recent scandals and other complaints are the exception or a sign of far deeper problems.”

It’s hard not to conclude that for the moral arbiters at the country’s “paper of record,” the jury will be out forever. No amount of evidence that an abhorrent practice is occurring, unproven in its claims of benefit but proven in its harms, which are myriad and severe, will spur the paper beyond calls for more research, scrutiny or oversight.