Former New York City police sergeant Anthony Miranda has a simple piece of advice.
“Every time you see a police encounter, pull out your cell phone,” Miranda said during a panel discussion at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem on Monday. “Videotape it, whether you think it’s right or wrong, and upload it onto the Internet.”
The crowd erupted into applause before the former officer had even finished his sentence. To anyone who walked out of the auditorium that night, the message from local residents was plain: We do not have faith in our police.
The event on Monday night, sponsored by the Police Reform Organizing Project, a city advocacy group that fights against police practices they say are abusive and unjust, underscored a broader local opposition to police actions, particularly the notorious stop-and-frisk policy.
Under stop-and-frisk, police officers may stop anyone whom they reasonably suspect may commit a crime, and pat them down for weapons or illicit materials. Supporters say the policy is a successful tool against violent crime, which dropped 18.3 percent in New York City between 2002 and 2011, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. But opponents say it encourages racial profiling and abusive search techniques without guaranteeing long-term deterrence.
Stop-and-frisk is a major issue in Morningside Heights and West Harlem. Between July 1 and Sept. 30 of this year, the most recent period for which statistics are available, police stopped and frisked roughly 2,600 people in Precincts 26, 28, 30, and 32, which comprise Morningside Heights and a majority of Harlem, according to data released by the NYPD.
Opposition to stop-and-frisk has grown among politicians citywide. Local City Council members have taken the lead on new proposals, which they hope will strike a balance between maintaining a policy the police stand by and satiating public outcry against its perceived abuse.
The same NYPD data shows that those stopped are overwhelmingly African-American or Hispanic. Roughly half of those stopped citywide in the last quarter were African-American, and an additional 30 percent were Hispanic. Only around 10,000, or 10 percent, of those frisked were either arrested or received a summons.
Racial disparities in the implementation of the policy have prompted anger throughout Harlem, Morningside Heights, and across the city, where residents claim they are inordinately targeted simply for their race rather than the likelihood that they will commit a crime.
“You can’t tell what someone is like based on their appearance,” said Harlem resident Jamal Benjamin. “Some guy with a suit and a briefcase could be the worst one.”
The belief that there is a double standard in the enforcement of stop-and-frisk is a prevalent one. During Monday night’s meeting, Graham Weatherspoon, a retired NYPD detective, received some of the biggest applause of the night when he argued that a white suspect would receive far more generous treatment in a stop-and-frisk case.
“If I threw a white boy up against a fence, his parents would be at the precinct with an attorney before I got back,” Weatherspoon said.
John Eterno, a retired NYPD captain and professor of criminal justice at Molloy College, said that, regardless of whether there had indeed been a drop in violent crime, stop-and-frisk victims have become intensely distrustful of the police.
“In the long run this will make more crime,” Eterno said. “Because you’re labeling people, you’re making them angrier at police. Are you going to say something to the guy who just threw you up against the wall?”
Local residents agree with this sentiment. A Harlem woman, who declined to give her name because of outstanding legal concerns, said the need to prevent crime should be weighed against the comfort of citizens.
“I hear people here and there and I think the reason stop-and-frisk is controversial is that it seems heavy-handed,” she said. “I think the idea is good, but it needs some type of modification to avoid the police losing the support of the citizen.”
Popular movements against the policy are underway in some communities. Last February, 30 advocacy groups launched Communities United for Police Reform, which works to educate minority communities and organize political opposition to stop-and-frisk. The group has already helped register about 5,000 voters, said Candis Tolliver, a police organizer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, a member organization.
Local politicians take action
City Council members Robert Jackson and Gale Brewer are both sponsors of a set of stop-and-frisk reform bills that are currently making their way through the council. Known as the Community Safety Act, the legislation would require officers to obtain consent before frisking suspects without probable cause and to identify themselves as part of the NYPD while carrying out “law-enforcement activity.” It would also create an inspector-general for the NYPD.
Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, said she did not believe the legislation would weaken stop-and-frisk’s effectiveness, arguing that simply proposing changes was often enough to make a difference.
“Sometimes when you introduce legislation, good things happen because you make it an issue,” said Brewer, who said she has received complaints from many constituents about the policy. “Just having the threat of forcing police to obey the law helps curtail the whole legal practice.”
Jackson, who represents Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, and part of Manhattanville, does not support the “discriminatory practices of the current NYPD policy,” said Joanna Garcia, Jackson’s chief of staff. “It’s supposed to be stop, question, and frisk. But oftentimes there is no questioning.”
Garcia said Jackson has been advocating for greater accountability with respect to stop-and-frisk, as well as initiatives for more stringent sensitivity training in the police department.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and part of the Upper West Side, and Inez Dickens, who represents Harlem and Morningside Heights, also support the reforms. They did not respond to requests for comment.
In a talk with the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review on Nov. 27, Robert Torres, an associate justice in the state supreme court’s appellate division, said stop-and-frisk was sensitive legal subject. A 1968 Supreme Court ruling found that officers need only “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity to stop someone, rather than the more stringent standard of “probable cause.”
Torres said this lower standard means each incident has to be examined on a case-by-case basis. “There is only one absolute in law, and that is that there are no absolutes in law,” he said. “Everything is fact-specific.”
Abusing a useful tool?
This summer, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended stop-and-frisk at an event at the Harlem Police Athletic League, calling out community leaders who attack the policy but do not move to tackle anti-gun legislation.
“Many of them will speak out about stop-and-frisk,” Kelly said, according to the Daily News, but are “shockingly silent when it comes to the level of violence right in their own communities.”
Although opponents of the policy maintain that stop-and-frisk is abused, many do not disapprove of the policy’s legality. During Monday night’s panel, not one of the anti-stop-and-frisk advocates on stage opposed the legal justification behind the policy, but rather the manner in which it is implemented.
“I have to tell you right now that I’m not against stop-and-frisk,” Eterno said. “What I’m against is what is going on right now which is the abuse of stop-and-frisk, and it is disgusting.”
Rather than the searches themselves, Eterno said the truly illegal aspect of stop-and-frisk is a supposed quota system that rewarded officers for stopping citizens, which he said was part of a top-down institutional fixation on arrests.
He said he had interviewed hundreds of police officers for his research on the policy, many of whom reported feeling pressured to stop people on the streets. In a survey he conducted with officers who had been part of the force since 1995, he said roughly 40 percent of those responding said they felt “high pressure” from higher-ups to stop and frisk people.
Although the NYPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment, it has long denied the existence of a quota system. In 2010, Governor David A. Paterson signed expansive anti-quota legislation, which banned formal quotas for stop-and-frisk encounters. In October of that same year, the NYPD legal department prepared a memo in which they denied that any formal quota existed.
“The setting and enforcement of quotas sets unfair standards and could result in an officer taking enforcement action for the purpose of meeting a quota rather than because a violation of the law has occurred,” the memo read.
The memo also said the department was allowed to establish “performance goals” for its officers. Some opponents of the policy, however, have said that these goals are simply quotas under another name, and argue that they provide a justification for punishing officers who do not stop enough people.
Carleton Berkeley, a former NYPD detective, said he had seen officers passed over for promotions because they had too few arrests on their records. Miranda, the retired NYPD sergeant, agreed that there was at least a de facto quota, saying the methods for enforcing it could range from simple harassment to transferring the officer to another precinct.
Some former officers even went so far as to argue that the emphasis on stop-and-frisk was no longer capturing criminals, but rather stopping a set number of people and doing whatever it took to avoid being held liable for potentially unlawful searches.
Many of them pointed to so-called “snap-out sheets,” or forms handed out to officers that listed 20 legitimate reasons for frisking a suspect. Before stopping someone, all an officer must do is check off one of the boxes on the form in order to present a legal justification to a judge.
“When officers get into the police academy, indoctrination begins to tell them that it’s ‘us versus them,’” Miranda said. “These forms were never intended to protect the community. They were meant to prevent liability.”
The supposed abuse of the policy has left some New Yorkers pessimistic about the prospect of change. Harry McNeary, a former convict who was at the meeting Monday, said officers had frisked him multiple times, experiences that left him pessimistic about the effect any reform could have.
“It goes on in my community on a daily basis. It’s nothing new for us,” McNeary, who now lives in the Bronx, said. “You can say nothing and just get smacked on the head. Staying quiet does not help you, and speaking out does not help you.”
Hallie Nell Swanson contributed reporting.