The number of times police officers stopped, questioned and frisked people on the streets of New York City has dropped significantly……by more than 34 percent, in recent months, and a key contributing factor appears to be that police commanders have grown wary of pushing for such stops at daily roll calls, police supervisors said.
At the same time, a general feeling of unease about the tactic by officers on the street — who have seen widespread criticism of so-called stop-and-frisks in the news media and by the courts — has also contributed to the drop, some say, with officers simply choosing not to question people they might have stopped before.
The decline suggests that officers are unsure whether the political support remains for street stops, long a focal point of Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly’s crime-fighting strategy. In recent months, three court rulings have raised questions about the New York Police Department’s use of the tactic, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly have put in place new measures aimed at ensuring lawful stops.
“Cops are nervous, and supervisors are nervous” about the stop-and-frisk practice, said a police supervisor, explaining the drop. The supervisor, like other officers interviewed, spoke on the condition that he not be named for fear of angering his bosses.
Another said that officers who were not pursuing as many stops were thinking to themselves, “I don’t want to be on the receiving end of any kind of allegation.”
“Police Department conducted 203,500 stops in January, February and March this year…. But in … April, May and June — the police stopped 133,934 people…”
The Police Department conducted 203,500 stops in January, February and March this year, according to the department’s chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne — a record number. But in the second quarter — April, May and June — the police stopped 133,934 people, he said. During this period, the issue received considerable attention in the news media. The second-quarter stops were about 25 percent lower compared with the number of street stops in the second quarter of 2011, police officials said.
Generally, about half of the street stops resulted in the police’s frisking the person, police officials said.
“Blacks and Hispanics generally represent more than 85 percent of those stops.”
The previously growing numbers of street stops — only 60,260 were recorded in the third quarter of 2004, for example — have been criticized by civil rights groups, as well as by some City Council members and minority community leaders, who point out that the overwhelming majority of the stops do not result in the discovery of any wrongdoing on the part of the person stopped. Blacks and Hispanics generally represent more than 85 percent of those stops. The second-quarter decline was first reported in Friday’s editions of The New York Post.
In recent years, stop-and-frisk tactics employed by police departments in other major cities have been impugned by civil rights leaders. In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a class-action federal lawsuit against the Philadelphia Police Department. The lawsuit led to a settlement in which Philadelphia officials agreed to adopt safeguards to make sure police stops were conducted legally, and to accept oversight by an independent monitor. After the changes, the number of street stops declined.
“These new officers conduct 30 percent to 40 percent of the department’s street stops…”
For their part, New York’s police officials said that the department was not stepping away from the tactic and that the lower numbers merely reflected changes in the way armies of rookies were assigned to high-crime areas. Fewer officers have been assigned over the past few months to Operation Impact, a program that puts recent graduates of the Police Academy in high-crime neighborhoods with instructions to seek out suspicious behavior. These new officers conduct 30 percent to 40 percent of the department’s street stops, Mr. Kelly said.
The commissioner told reporters on Friday that he did not believe the decline in street stops was in any way connected to the criticism the tactic had attracted. He also said that the department had not instructed officers to back away from conducting street stops when appropriate.
Mr. Kelly acknowledged that the practice had come under scrutiny but said he did not believe that recent criticism by civil rights leaders played a role in the drop-off. He pointed to enhanced training and the “draw down” of Operation Impact officers. “Obviously, there is attention and scrutiny on it,” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s really why we engaged in the new training evolution.”
There are three daily roll calls in each precinct, in which information is shared and crime patterns and assignments are discussed before officers go on patrol. In recent months, several officers said, many sergeants conducting roll calls have stopped emphasizing the need to stop and question people on the street.
“They don’t ask for it anymore,” an officer in the Bronx said. “They just stopped.”
This is key, the officer said, because when sergeants were asking for them, “it starts becoming a quota or a production goal.”
“Why is it so important how many 250s someone did?” the officer added, referring to a form, a UF-250, filled out after a stop-and-frisk episode.
A police officer in the Bronx said that officers detected a mixed message from the top. In recent months, the officer noted, Mr. Bloomberg’s support of the stop-and-frisk tactic has, in the eyes of many officers, softened. In addition, the officer noted, Mr. Kelly ordered all officers to go through retraining on how to conduct lawful stop-and-frisk encounters. “You see an about-face, and it’s like they’re saying there was something wrong with how it was done before,” the officer said. “Before, you had the mayor and the police commissioner defending stop and frisk to the end.”
The officer also noted that a federal-court decision in May granted class-action status to a lawsuit on behalf of many New Yorkers who had been stopped. That decision, the officer said, had concerned officers, leading them to wonder if the federal judge was ultimately going to hold that the Police Department’s street stops had led to widespread Fourth Amendment violations.
“People read those articles and realized this may be illegal,” the officer said. A Supreme Court decision in 1968 permitted the police to conduct street stops if they had a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot and to subsequently frisk the person if the officer was concerned for his or her safety because of a belief that the person was armed.
In discussing the falling numbers on Friday, the mayor’s chief spokesman, Marc La Vorgna, suggested that the mayor thought the stop-and-frisk process needed to be fixed. “As the mayor said, we needed to mend, not end, the practice, and the reforms Commissioner Kelly has put into place ensure the focus is quality, not quantity,” he said.
The number of street stops has increased every year during Mr. Kelly’s tenure, except in 2007. After the first quarter of 2012, police and city officials began to wonder how high the number would go in future years, and some privately questioned why the number of street stops continued to rise even as crime levels remained relatively flat in recent years.
But the drop over the past three months, whether caused by officers’ skepticism, Operation Impact changes or a combination of both, could also suggest that the practice of stop and frisk may have crested in early 2012 and may now be on the decline.
“I do believe there is a realization on the part of the New York Police Department that perhaps the number of stops got too large for the communities and the police officers to deal with,” the chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Peter F. Vallone Jr. said. Mr. Vallone, who is generally supportive of the police’s use of street stops, said that the number of stop-and-frisk encounters had gone “higher than we should go,” given a reduced police force. He added that “officers had been left feeling the strain of a large amount of stop and frisks.”
In an interview in the spring, Mr. Kelly questioned whether the rise in stop-and-frisk encounters during his tenure was as drastic as the numbers suggested. He pointed out that in the early years of his tenure, officers were more likely to underreport the number of street stops, which are supposed to be recorded on the UF-250.
He said that if, indeed, there had been a drastic increase in street stops, it was not the result of his ordering anybody to increase their numbers. “I don’t want to say that anyone went out there and said, You have to do more,” he said.