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Number of People Stopped by Police Soars in New York

NY Times | February 3, 2007
AL BAKER and EMILY VASQUEZ

The New York Police Department released new information yesterday showing that police officers stopped 508,540 individuals on New York City streets last year — an average of 1,393 stops per day — often searching them for illegal weapons. The number was up from 97,296 in 2002, the last time the department divulged 12 months' worth of data.

After inquiries by the City Council and civil rights advocates, the department delivered four bound volumes of statistics to the Council in midafternoon. The raw data showed that more than half of those stopped last year were black: an average of 67,000 per quarter.

At the same time, the average number of people arrested per quarter as a result of such stops almost doubled to 5,317 last year, from 2,819 in 2002, and summonses nearly quintupled, to a quarterly average of 7,292 last year from 1,461 in 2002.

Until yesterday, the most recent information released by the Police Department about how and why it stops people to search them, sometimes looking for illegal guns, was from 2003, according to city officials and city and court records. Some officials have said that lag put the department at odds with a pair of legal requirements that sprang from public outrage at the 1999 fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black street peddler.

The department, which rejects such assertions, has not released numbers from 2004 and 2005, or from the last three months of 2003.

Those who review the data are now grappling with dual issues: determining why the Police Department waited so long to release any new figures, and why it is stopping more people and searching them.

The issue of these police-public encounters — called “stop and frisks” — became an emotional flashpoint after the shooting of Mr. Diallo, whose death in a barrage of 41 police bullets led to weeks of protests and scores of arrests outside 1 Police Plaza, in Lower Manhattan.

Many of the protesters contended that there was a pattern of racial profiling in stop-and-frisks. A state study later in 1999 confirmed racial disparities in such stops.

The guidelines to monitor stop-and-frisks in detail were set forth in a city law signed in 2001, and in a federal court case settled by the Bloomberg administration in 2004. Both called for the Police Department to release to the City Council, four times a year, basic data about the people who are stopped and questioned by officers, and the reasons for such encounters.

But until yesterday, it had been a year since the department reported its stop-and-frisk activity, and those numbers dated from a three-month period ending in September 2003.

In the meantime, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent city agency that investigates charges of police misconduct, found that complaints involving stops and searches have more than doubled in recent years, increasing to 2,556 last year from 1,128 in 2003. Complaints involving police stops now account for 33 percent of all complaints, up from 20 percent in 2003.

At a City Council hearing on Jan. 24, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly assured council members that his officers were not practicing racial profiling in street stops.

“Officers are stopping those they reasonably suspect of committing a crime, based on descriptions and circumstances,” Mr. Kelly said, “and not on personal bias.”

Paul J. Browne, the chief police spokesman, said later that the department's analysis of the numbers showed that while 55.2 percent of the stop encounters last year involved blacks, 68.5 percent of crimes involved suspects described as black by their victims (or by witnesses, in the case of homicides). Hispanics, he said, made up 30.5 percent of those stopped and 24.5 percent of suspected offenders. For whites, he said, the numbers were 11.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.

Mr. Browne said that aggressive street enforcement was partly responsible for the increase in stop-and-frisks. Also, he said, “careful accounting” of such encounters by the department in recent years made the increase seem greater. “Part of it is taking guns off the street and responding to complaints where we use stop-and-frisk,” he said.

It was unclear last night how much of the increase in stops was due to suspected gun possession or how many led to gun arrests. Mr. Browne could not confirm a direct line between gun arrests and increases in stops, and said officers' efforts to take guns off the streets were just one facet of the crime suppression the stop-and-frisk forms reflected.

The 2006 figures, delivered yesterday by two officers in plain clothes, were contained in four books of about 250 pages each. Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., chairman of the Council's public safety committee, said his staff was unable to interpret the numbers immediately.

The department's lag in releasing the numbers came to light after the fatal shooting in November of another unarmed black man, Sean Bell, and has been seized on by civil rights advocates, academics and current and former government officials. Mr. Bell's death was not related to a stop-and-frisk operation, but it has become a valve for frustrations over relations between the police and minority residents. But members of the City Council said they had been requesting the material even before the Bell shooting.

Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University who studied the issue in 1999 for Eliot Spitzer, then the attorney general, said he was not surprised that the number of stop-and-frisks went up “during a period of no accountability.”

But, he added, “it is an astonishing fact that stop rates went up by 500 percent when crime rates were flat.” Police officials and a city lawyer said there were several reasons the department had fallen behind in releasing the numbers. Compiling the reports, they said, has been hampered by antiquated technology, especially since the numbers have risen. The department has been working to modernize its reporting system, officials said, and has not been withholding the data deliberately.

Some observers questioned whether producing data on street stops remained on the department's front burner during the age of terrorism.

“I just don't think it's a priority,” Dr. Fagan said of the data collection.

The total number of stops includes cases in which the officers acted to prevent what could have been terrorist activity, the police said. But those stops are relatively rare, they said, and there is no separate category for keeping track of them. Searches of subway riders' bags are not considered stop-and-frisk encounters because people willing to forgo entry to the subway can decline them.

Joel Berger, who monitored matters of police conduct as an executive in the city's Law Department from 1988 to 1996, said: “It is particularly frightening that the Police Department is not following the statute that requires reporting on stop, question and frisks. It is the thing that happens most often and most troubles people, and the failure to report the numbers is, effectively, very alarming.”

Mr. Spitzer first dug into the issue of street stops after the Diallo shooting and found that Hispanics and blacks were being disproportionately targeted. After adjusting for varying crime rates among racial groups, his analysis found that blacks were stopped 23 percent more often than whites. Hispanics were stopped 39 percent more often than whites.

In the wake of those findings, the city signed a law allowing the Council to collect the Police Department's stop-and-frisk data on a quarterly basis. Separately, the federal class-action lawsuit, Daniels v. City of New York, alleged that the police habitually used racial profiling in stop-and-frisk situations. When the city's corporation counsel settled the case in January 2004, the agreement required the police to disclose data on such encounters through 2007.

The idea was that increased transparency about police stops would not only foster analysis of one of the department's most crucial tactics for reducing crime, but also would help restore the public's trust.

Mr. Spitzer's study reviewed police records known as UF-250s. Officers must fill them out after making forcible stops, including those in which a person is frisked or searched. His report noted that officers did not always fill them out. The form shows the race of the person stopped as well as the reason.

Under a system begun in the spring of 1999, police officials said, forms completed at individual precincts were taken to 1 Police Plaza, where their 50 points of data were gathered. Envisioning a daunting backlog, Mr. Kelly in 2005 directed that the process be decentralized so that the raw data could be recorded quickly, at the precinct level.

Mr. Kelly told officials at the Jan. 24 hearing that the data for the remainder of 2003, and for all of 2004 and 2005, would take longer to provide. That is “because it must be compiled manually, rather than in a technologically advanced way,” according to a letter sent Thursday from the Law Department to a plaintiff in the federal case.

“We've been patiently waiting for years now,” Councilman Vallone, told Mr. Kelly at the hearing. “We would again request that you give us that information.”

For a time, the police gave the data to the City Council with some regularity. But the frequency of the reports slowed, and in February 2006, the department released data for the third quarter of 2003.

Then, the flow of data stopped. Until yesterday.

But city leaders came under criticism as well for failing to more forcefully demand the data. “The City Council has failed to ensure that the Police Department is producing the reports, as required by the statute,” said Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “As a result, it has not been doing any monitoring of stop-and-frisk activity, which was the very point of the statute.”

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