The New York City Police Department (NYPD) is conducting stops and frisks in record numbers – roughly 685,000 in 2011 and on track to reach over 700,000 this year.1 Black and Latino people are consistently and intentionally stopped at a hugely disproportionate rate: nearly 85 percent of all stops.2 These alarming statistics speak volumes on their own – the overwhelming racial disparity and the low rate of lawful arrests3 or discovery of contraband4 that result from stops and frisks raise serious questions about the purpose or usefulness of this practice. However, the numbers alone do not tell the whole story.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) first challenged NYPD stop-and-frisk practices in 1999 with its landmark racial profiling case Daniels, et al. v. City of New York, et al.,5 which led to the disbanding of the infamous Street Crime Unit.6 A 2003 settlement agreement in that case required the NYPD to begin providing stop-and-frisk data to CCR on a quarterly basis. When subsequent analysis of this data revealed a continuing pattern of widespread racial profiling and unconstitutional stops and frisks, the Center filed another federal class action lawsuit, Floyd, et al. v. City of New York, et al.7 in 2008. Along with this ongoing litigation, CCR has engaged in extensive advocacy around this issue as part of an unprecedented movement of grassroots organizations, lawyers, researchers, and activists in a campaign to end discriminatory policing practices in New York. CCR is a member of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR),8 a coalition that strives to promote public safety and policing practices that are based on cooperation and respect instead of discriminatory targeting and harassment.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the impact that NYPD policing policies are having on the lives of New Yorkers, CCR conducted 54 interviews9 with people who had been stopped by the NYPD. This report is a summary of those interviews; these are the stories behind the numbers.
The picture that emerges from these stories is as clear as it is disturbing. Each year, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are being illegally profiled and subjected to humiliating experiences at the hands of the NYPD. Often these encounters have serious repercussions that can change the course of people’s lives. A wide range of communities in our society have learned to live in fear of police and a generation of children of color have grown up in an environment where being mistreated by police is an expected part of daily life. Entire New York City neighborhoods exist under conditions that residents compare to a military occupation – where simply going to the store or coming home from school is a dangerous activity.
The widespread use of stop and frisk in New York City is also part of a larger trend of ever-increasing criminalization and mass incarceration that has resulted in the United States having, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the world.10 In this way, the devastating effects of stop and frisk are also a harbinger of the larger costs of this national crisis.
Stop and Frisk
“Stop and frisk” is the police practice of temporarily detaining people on the street, questioning them, and possibly also frisking or searching them. Under the law, an officer may not stop a person without having a reasonable suspicion that the individual has engaged or is about to engage in criminal activity. Frisking someone is legally permitted only when the officer has a reason to suspect that the person is armed and/or dangerous.11 A stop may result in an arrest or a summons being issued if evidence of criminal activity is discovered.
In New York City, police officers have a standardized form12 on which they must record the circumstances that led them to stop someone. The form lists several possible reasons for the stop that officers check off, including “Fits Description,” “Furtive Movements,” “Suspicious Bulge/Object,” “Wearing Clothes/Disguises Commonly Used in Commission of Crime,” “Sights and Sounds of Criminal Activity,” and “Area Has High Incidence of Reported Offense of Type Under Investigation” (high-crime area).13The data compiled from these forms was provided to CCR pursuant to the settlement agreement in Daniels and continues as part of the Floyd litigation.
The use of stops and frisks has grown at an astounding rate – a more than 600 percent increase over the past ten years. The number of stops in 2011 was the largest on record and 2012 is on track to be higher still, with over 203,500 stops in the first three months alone – an average of 2,200 stops per day. These numbers are all the more significant in light of evidence that an alarming number of these stops, frisks, and searches are illegal, in part because they are not based on the required level of suspicion of criminal activity.14 Despite the City’s attempts to justify the program as aimed at confiscating illegal weapons, a 2010 expert report by Professor Jeffrey Fagan that CCR submitted to the court in Floyd found that the weapons and contraband yield from stops and frisks hovered around only 1.14 percent – a rate no greater than would be found by chance at random check points.15