Kelly's Stop and Frisk Proposals May Not Do Enough: Experts

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Under increasing heat for the New York City police department’s stop-and-frisk practices, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly sent a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn outlining changes, as WNYC first reported last week, to the policy. But law enforcement experts say Kelly’s changes do not go far enough.

Many critics of stop and frisk say they recognize that the practice, when done according to the law, is a legitimate crime-fighting tool. The goal is not to eliminate stop-and-frisk, they say, but to vastly reduce the number of unlawful stops.

However, figuring out the right process to reduce those unlawful stops is the challenge, critics say, and Kelly’s high-level, vague proposals on accountability and training may not bring the rigor needed to truly reform the practice.

Looking at Paper is Not Enough

Kelly reiterated the department’s policy against racial profiling, first promulgated in 2002 and told Quinn he will hold precinct commanders accountable about stop-and-frisk practices, establish an early warning system that flags officers who receive complaints about their stop-and-frisk activity, and institute new stop-and-frisk training for 1,500 officers in high-crime areas.

But the proposed change that aroused, perhaps, the most skepticism from stop-and-frisk critics was Kelly’s plan to have executive officers in all the precincts more closely review the stop-and-frisk reports, called UF-250s, generated by their officers. Auditing stops, they believe, must go further than reviewing the paperwork.

“You can’t tell based on what the form says whether or not the stop was legal. The form doesn’t give you enough information,” said Darius Charney, with the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is leading the current federal class action suit against the city on behalf of plaintiffs. “The second thing is, reviewing paperwork does in no way account for officers entering inaccurate information.”

On a UF-250, an officer fills out the date, time and location of the stop and the name and address of the person whom the officer encountered. Then he places a check mark next to the justification for the stop.  Phrases such as “fits description”, “furtive movements” or “high crime area” appear on the list of several possible options.

In her decision granting class action status on Wednesday to a lawsuit against unlawful stops, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin said a form alone cannot prove the legality of a stop. “A lawful stop is not made unlawful simply because the police officer fails to fill out the paperwork properly and an unlawful stop is not made lawful because the police officer fills out the paperwork dishonestly or inaccurately,” she wrote.

 She also noted how thousands of stops — on the face of the UF-250 alone — reflected “facially insufficient” stops. For example, she found the sole justification of “furtive movements” too subjective and vague to form the basis for reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and that “high crime area” was checked off on forms in all precincts, including precincts with low crime rates.

Criminal justice advocates say, therefore, a detailed conversation with the officer who conducted the stop is necessary to truly evaluate whether the stop was lawful.

“Merely looking at the paper wouldn’t be sufficient,” said former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer, who served as the state’s Attorney General between 1999 and 2006.  “What needs to then follow from that is a conversation, an inquiry, about what factors are legitimate factors in being the foundation for a stop and then a frisk.”

While attorney general, Spitzer commissioned a study in 1999 of citywide stop and frisks, which concluded that people of color were disproportionately impacted.

Law enforcement experts said if Kelly is sincere about eliminating unlawful stops, more rigorous supervision of the practice ― and not the paperwork ― is required. Monitors should accompany every officer on the street at least a few times to see how they are conducting stops.  Then the monitors should analyze how those stops are recorded on the UF-250 forms and have conversations with officers about why a particular person was stopped and why a specific justification was checked off on the form.

“What it means is that you have teams of auditors that would go in and conduct in-depth audits of the various stops and frisks,” said Richard Aborn, who is president of the Citizens Crime Commission. He supports the appointment of an independent inspector general to oversee the NYPD. “You might very well have street observations taking place. You would have interviews taking place with some of the people that were stopped.”

Police officers tell WNYC those type of detailed conversations do not currently occur between officers and supervisors as a matter of routine.

Changing the Culture to Change the Behavior

Criminal justice experts believe the key to curbing excessive stop and frisk practices is to change the culture within the department, which rewards high numbers of arrests, summonses and stops. That downward pressure, they say, is what keeps stop and frisk totals increasing every year.

“Here, if what we’re doing is giving people the upside of either getting awards, or getting recommendations or getting overtime that come from stops and frisks, but they’re not bearing any downside of being criticized when they do it improperly, then you’re going to get too many stops and frisks that don’t relate to real evidence,” Spitzer explained.

Last year, the police conducted more than 685,000 stops.  More than 85 percent of those were of black and Latino individuals, and about 90 percent of those stops failed to result in either an arrest or a summons. 

Supervising officers told WNYC that a new message has been passed down in the last several weeks from the highest levels of the department: it’s not the quantity, but the quality, of stop and frisks that will matter.

However, at Thursday’s budget hearing, Kelly suggested he wasn’t focused on decreasing stop and frisk numbers.  In fact, he said, some residents are clamoring for more stops.

“I understand people may not be happy with it, but I can also assure you that I go to communities — communities of color — and people want more,” said Kelly.