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New York City Cops Still Don't Know Why They're Stopping People on the Street

Years after stop and frisk was ruled unconstitutional, a new report says many beat cops in the NYPD are clueless.

Cops on the job in New York City in 2011, when stop and frisk by the NYPD was at its peak. Photo via Flickr user vincent desjardins

Back in September, the New York City Police Department officially started giving people receipts when they stopped and frisked them. The procedure was designed to prevent dubious searches, increase officer accountability, and help repair the relationship between cops and minority communities. But according to a report filed in New York federal court on Tuesday, the cops charged with issuing those receipts rarely do so—and are often unable to explain why they stop people in the first place.


If you've never personally experienced it, stop and frisk is a controversial practice based on the "broken windows" theory of policing, which holds that the way to prevent major crimes is by cracking down on minor ones. In this case, that means hitting people up in rough neighborhoods to check them for guns or drugs. After stop and frisk was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2013 for disproportionately targeting people of color, an outside monitor was brought in to audit the NYPD. This latest report is monitor Peter Zimroth's second so far, and it shows that even as the use of stop and frisk has declined massively since peaking five years ago, officers can't or won't explain why they hassle people on the street.

"It is apparent from focus group sessions and discussions with individual officers throughout the ranks that many police officers, including supervisors, are not well informed as yet about the changes underway or the reasons for them and, therefore, have yet to internalize them," the monitor wrote. "Many appear not to understand what is expected of them."

Recorded stop and frisks reached their height of 685,724 in 2011. Last year, the total was down to about 24,000, but skeptics say that this is the result of confusion and underreporting—not a real change in how New York cops interact with blacks and Latinos.

Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD detective sergeant and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, remembers being on the force when officers were first required to check a box explaining stops in 2011. He says that was a huge burden on cops, who previously could offer a narrative explanation of the incident, and that as a desk sergeant, he used to "kick [forms] back [to officers] all the time."


"It didn't take much to think that officers would stop doing them altogether," Giacalone explains. "These forms and the procedure are toxic to officers and their careers. I think this generation of cops will abandon it altogether, if not already, especially if the department comes down on officers and supervisors for administrative mistakes."

Of course, cops neglecting to report the searches they conduct would obscure the problem of stop and frisk rather than solve it. That worries advocacy groups like Communities United For Police Reform (CPR), a representative of which said in a statement Tuesday that "there are serious concerns about the continued unconstitutionality of many stops taking place that are and are not reported."

In his report, Zimroth encouraged police supervisors, such as sergeants, to play a more active role in making sure the reports are filled out correctly—and more often. But Giacalone thinks even many police officials are out of touch with the reality of policing in 21st century America.

"You can tell them as many times as you want, include it in mandatory training, but it shows you that even those in the highest ranks don't understand the cop culture," the former police sergeant says. "It's been so long since those in charge have actually been a part of it, that they have forgotten what it feels like to be left out in the open. When the rank and file feel like the politicians don't have their backs and they have become political pawns, their performance suffers, just like any other profession."

Giacalone's comments echo those made by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said at the time of the 2013 ruling that the judge did not "understand how policing works." Yet for all the squabbling over whether the people making the rules understand what it's like to be a beat cop, it remains unclear whether stop and frisk has any effect on crime whatsoever.

"It seems that this is a form of either passive resistance or passive aggressive behavior by the police," Jeffrey Fagan, an expert on policing at Columbia University Law School who was cited more than any other person in the 2013 court ruling, said in an email. "I think they know perfectly well what policy requires regarding reporting."

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