This week in the Voice, we talk to current and former law enforcement officers who have actually faced stop-and-frisk themselves when they are off-duty, walking home in their neighborhoods or driving around the city in their cars. These retired and active cops say that stop-and-frisk is such a common experience for young black and Latino men in New York City, that it’s almost inevitable that men of color are stopped and questioned by a cop at some point — even if they are officers.
With stop-and-frisk an increasingly hot topic in the news lately — and an important battleground for the 2013 mayoral hopefuls trying to secure minority votes — we thought we’d bring you some reflections on the policy and its implementation from some New York Police Department officers who actually conduct the stops.
We interviewed a handful of active and retired cops and law enforcement officials who talked about the politics around stop-and-frisk inside police precincts, and why it’s unsurprising to some of them that the practice reaches black and Latino off-duty or undercover officers.
The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but when the Voice asked about stop-and-frisk last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said what he’s always said: Police stops take illegal guns off of the street and save thousands of lives. He said the practice is legal and a necessary crime-fighting tool that he refuses to alter in any significant way. Critics of the policy, however, maintain that nine out of ten who are stopped aren’t actually arrested or ticketed (meaning they’re innocent), and that most are young men of color, concentrated in poorer neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and parts of the outer boroughs.
Below are some excerpts that didn’t make it into our print story from a few of the former and current cops we interviewed. Most said that there is great internal pressure to conduct stops — often in the form of direct quotas — and that this pressure forces cops to stop individuals without having any justifiable suspicions, which makes the practice unconstitutional and forces officers to lie on paperwork.
Noel Leader, 53, a co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, retired sergeant who worked for the NYPD for more than two decades:
“The problem with stop-and-frisk as it’s being conducted today, is that officers are engaged in illegal stop-and-frisks…What’s happening now under Police Commissioner [Ray] Kelly is that he’s demanding officers conduct stops, even if they don’t have a justifiable level of suspicion or the legal level of suspicion,” he said.
“Because they are under pressure, in order to fill quotas, they are stopping innocent individauls randomly,” he added.
Leader said this becomes a big problem with overtime shifts — which are highly coveted for the extra pay. Higher-ups, he said, will give out overtime shifts to cops with the expectation that they will finish the day with a certain number of stop-and-frisks logged, depending on the borough and location of the precinct. “That’s the condition of doing overtime…and officers enjoy this overtime. They love overtime.”
Ultimately, he said, the bottom line is that random stops are illegal, even if they are stopping crime once in awhile. “The end doesn’t justify the means if it’s illegal…You don’t fight crime by committing crime…You can’t just throw away the laws, so that cops can stop anybody at anytime…If they stop a hundred black people, one person’s going to have a gun, two people might have a bag of weed on them. It’s called fishing. There’s no justification to stop these people…If you do an illegal stop and illegal search, that means you have to justify it. Now you have to create a story to justify it…It’s perjury. You have officers … [lying] by the hundreds of thousands to justify illegal activity.”
Leader, who says he himself has been stopped a dozen times or so over the last decade, added, “A lot of officers don’t like doing this. They are being forced to do it…We are being ordered to violate people’s rights.”
He said that the pressure comes from Kelly and his crime tracking system called CompStat. That pressure trickles down to borough chiefs and commanding officers. He said that there are often punishments for not conducting enough stops, such as losing a promotion or getting a bad assignment.
NYPD officer in Queens, lives in upper Manhattan, in his 30s, is black, and has been on the job for around 8 years:
“I do agree with stop-and-frisk, but only in certain aspects. The reason behind it is to deter crime. You have to have probable cause when you stop someone…maybe someone’s about to commit a crime or looks like they are doing something illegal,” he said. “But you have to have that probable cause, because when you stop someone, you are prohibiting their civil liberties.”
He said that they may get calls on their radio of a suspect with a very specific description, and if they see someone who closely matches the description, they will stop them. If he’s wrong, the officer told the Voice, he’ll apologize and move on.
He said that cops who walk the streets — as opposed to the ones who respond to 911 calls and emergency situations radioed in throughout the day — are the ones who really face the pressures to conduct a certain number of stop-and-frisks. When he was a newer cop, the pressure was greater, he added.
“Certain supervisors will put pressures on lower supervisors. What are you doing to solve those issues and bring down crime? Pressure goes down to the sergeant. …When you’re new, they’ll just come out and pressure you and say we need a couple from you a month. They’ll say, ‘Listen, you can’t be coming in with zero.'”
He remembered going a month without seeing any illegal activity and thus not conducting any stop-and-frisks. “I remember [talking to] a supervisor who got upset and said, ‘You didn’t give me any [stop-and-frisks] for the month.’ I told him I didn’t see a reason to. And the guy kind of tore into me.”
He said plainclothes cops who walk the streets may be pressured to log ten or so stops a month. “It’s not that easy to drive around and always see something that might be unlawful…Then they have to fabricate a reason. That’s when it becomes an issue. A lot of these guys are minorities they are stopping…who have no idea that the police officers are stopping them for no reason.”
“Do they profile? Yeah, they will profile. If they see a male black or male Hispanic driving around a car, sometimes they’ll stop them…It’s frustrated me a lot of the time…Us uniform officers are the backbone of the NYPD, and we are leaned on so hard to do so much. People have no idea how much pressure is put on us,” he said.
Anthony Miranda, executive chairman of the National Latino Officers Association, based in New York City, retired sergeant for the NYPD:
He said that men of color in the NYPD have to worry about not getting in trouble if they do end up getting stopped by another on-duty cop.
“For off-duty cops, [it’s important] to walk away and make sure I don’t receive any disciplinary charges for it, because unfirom cops [might]…lie — they are concerned about covering their own behind,” he said. “It’s always been people of color [in the NYPD] who end up being arrested or suspended…[Officers] may take disciplinary actions against officers, because they are afraid of the lawsuits, because they know cops know the rules.”
He added, “When they made [stop-and-frisk] part of a quota system, it no longer became a crime-fighting tool. The moment it changed from being a crime-fighting tool, it became abusive. I don’t care what precinct you go to. It happens in minority neighborhoods, and it happens in white precincts. I will still guarantee to you the majority of stop-and-frisks will still be people of color.”
A major problem with cops stopping off-duty cops is that it often goes unreported, he said. “It would not get recorded as a stop-and-frisk…[unless] it escalated and a supervisor came…Then, it might be recorded as…an off-duty incident. The majority of these incidents are happening to [cops] of color.”
An NYPD officer who works in Manhattan, is black, and is in his 30s, has been on the job for 12 years:
With off-duty or undercover cops being stopped, he said, “The numbers are definitely lower than what they are reported…A lot of time people don’t report, they don’t have the inclination to report. They’ll search and leave [once they realize it is a cop]. That leads to nothing. Most minorities and young men are not going to go into the precinct and report that. It’s more of a hassle…than just going about your business. You don’t want to go the precinct where you’ve just been violated.”
In general, he said, when people have been wrongfully stopped by cops, they often aren’t going to fight it. “The numbers are absurd. The amount that’s not reported, you would be floored…Young black men are not going to go into the precinct,” he said.
For off-duty cops and other New Yorkers, he said, “It’s also based on neighborhood…if you live in the ethnic neighborhoods, you’re gonna get stopped more. You will rarely get stopped in Staten Island.”
He added, “The pressure of the officer is definite. It’s definitely driven as a result of the precinct commanders…They don’t want the crime patterns to seem like they are out of control in your areas. Instead of looking things in a practical way, they look at things in a number-driven way — it’s real pressure, especially if you’re a new officer. New officers are working on foot in the community…They are under great pressure.”
Even with the statistics that do exist, he said, it’s clearly problematic.
“The problem is the abuses far outweigh the amount of arrests you are getting out of it,” he said. “If you have a certain number of people being stopped and frisked just to get a small percentage of arrests…everybody else is being violated.”