Frisk Management

How the NYPD's blackly grim stop-and-frisk numbers got whitewashed

When NYPD cops fired 50 times and killed unarmed Sean Bell a year ago, they called it "contagious fire." When they shot and killed troubled teen Kheil Coppin last month, mistaking a hairbrush for a gun, it was spun as "suicide by cop."

Now, thanks to a RAND Corporation study that it commissioned, the NYPD has a surprising explanation of the huge and disproportionate number of stop-and-frisks of black and Latino New Yorkers. What it boils down to is the RAND report's conclusion, which the institute banners as this: "NYPD Pedestrian Stop Patterns Mostly Racially Neutral, with Some Trouble Spots."

The RAND report was released just before Thanksgiving to mostly positive reviews in the press. However, the report is hardly an independent analysis. Not only was it commissioned by the NYPD, but its scope was specifically limited by the police, an interview with the study's author reveals.

The funeral for Kheil Coppin
photo: Jake Price
The funeral for Kheil Coppin

Prompted years ago by criticism in the wake of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the NYPD started requiring its officers to fill out reports on their stop-and-frisks. Just this year, the NYPD released a year's worth of stats under pressure. After an outcry about what the stats revealed, it hired RAND to analyze the figures.

Make of the RAND conclusion what you will, but the raw data released in the report can leave many New Yorkers feeling raw: In 2006, city cops reported making 508,540 pedestrian stops, ostensibly to question people suspected of criminal behavior—yes, half a million. Fewer than 10 percent of the stops resulted in arrests or summonses, according to the NYPD's own stats.

A stunning 89 percent of those stopped were minorities, including 267,000 black people. In other words, 55 percent of the stop-and-frisks were of black people—more than double their percentage of the city's population. A total of 145,000 Latinos were stopped.

Not that this is any surprise to black or Latino New Yorkers, but 45 percent of those who were stopped were frisked, compared with only 29 percent of whites. Police used force about 50 percent more often on blacks than whites—despite the fact that, percentage-wise, cops found guns, drugs, or stolen property on whites about twice as often as they did on black suspects. That suggests less rigorous search standards used by cops against white people.

Whatever term you choose—racial bias, selective enforcement, racial profiling—the numbers seem to support the notion that the NYPD unfairly targets minorities, especially blacks.

No, says RAND statistician Greg Ridgeway, who conducted the study. Arguing in statistician lingo that there are unconsidered variables that skew the results and actually lead to paradoxical conclusions, Ridgeway's study determines that the racial disparities of police stops are "much smaller than the raw statistics would suggest."

In fact, he says, the argument could be made that black New Yorkers weren't stopped enough.

As Ridgeway puts it, black New Yorkers were "understopped by about 20 percent relative to their representation of criminal- suspect descriptions."

The RAND study, for which the department's Police Foundation paid $120,000, concludes that no major changes should be made in the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policies. There's nothing paradoxical about that to the NYPD's critics.

Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union calls the report "not only a whitewash, but a racist whitewash." Dunn, the NYCLU's associate legal director, adds: "To suggest that stopping blacks in large numbers is acceptable because more blacks commit violent crimes is outrageous, especially when one realizes that 90 percent of those stopped are law-abiding people who were neither arrested nor given a summons."

THE CONTROVERSY OVER THE NYPD'S STOP-AND-FRISK statistics dates back to the 1999 Diallo case, in which the unarmed black African immigrant was gunned down in a hail of 41 shots while reaching for his wallet after police tried to stop and question him in the Bronx.

As part of the continuing fallout from that incident, the City Council required in 2001 that the NYPD provide quarterly reports detailing the racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk reports. The police department provided reports for 2002 and data for the first three quarters of 2003 but then stopped. In November 2006, the NYCLU formally requested that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly comply with the law. There was no response from the NYPD until it learned last January that The New York Times was preparing to do a story about the department's refusal to comply, according to a lawsuit that the NYCLU recently filed.

This past February 2, on the eve of the story's publication, the NYPD gave the City Council the stop-and-frisk reports for 2006. Those reports showed that the number of stops had quintupled over 2002, the last full year from which data were supplied, and that blacks were being stopped at a rate twice their percentage of the population.

To quell the subsequent shitstorm, Kelly announced three weeks later that RAND would analyze the NYPD's data.

RAND released its report last month. But the report did not include all of the NYPD's raw data, so there's no way to check Ridgeway's work or to see how else the numbers could be crunched.

And the NYPD has, of course, refused to release the data. The NYCLU, after attempting to obtain the stop-and-frisk database provided to Rand through a Freedom of Information request, filed a lawsuit in November to try to pry the information from the NYPD. Similar requests from the City Council have also been turned down by the NYPD. The NYCLU's suit is pending.

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