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Chipping Away at Stop-and-Frisk

Fifty-one-year-old Charles Bradley finished his shift as a security guard and took the subway to visit his estranged fiancée at his former house in the Bronx. It might have been a night of reconciliation. But instead, it was a night spent interrogated...

by Krishna Andavolu
Jan 20 2013, 8:54pm

Fifty-one-year-old Charles Bradley finished his shift as a security guard and took the subway to visit his fiancée. The two made plans to meet the day before. Charles had moved out of the apartment they shared on 1527 Taylor Ave., in the Bronx after a disagreement. It might have been a night of reconciliation. But instead, it was a night spent interrogated in a van, strip-searched at the station house, and called “a fucking animal,” thanks to the NYPD and Operation Clean Halls, which allows police officers to patrol private apartment buildings in high crime areas in New York City since 1991.

Before his encounter with the police, Charles was let into the building on Taylor Ave. by a former neighbor who recognized him. He took the elevator to his fiancée’s apartment and rang the doorbell. She didn’t answer. So he went back down to the street and stood on the sidewalk for a minute, contemplating his options. It was then that Officer Miguel Santiago, who was sitting in the passenger seat of an unmarked police van, called him over. The officer asked Charles, “What are you doing here.” Charles told him he was trying to visit his wife-to-be. Unsatisfied with his answer, Santiago searched Charles, handcuffed him, and placed in the van. Santiago and his partner, Officer Landro Perez, drove around for about 30 minutes questioning Charles: “ When was the last time you saw a gun? When was the last time you got high? When was the last time you bought some drugs.” At the 43rd Precinct, Charles was searched in “inappropriate places,” fingerprinted, and placed in a holding cell. He was given a court date and charged with trespassing. Charles’ attorney later produced a notarized letter from his fiancée corroborating his story. The DA refused to prosecute.

That might have been the end of Charles’ story, a far too common instance of NYPD harassing people of color in high crime neighborhoods, were it not for a class action lawsuit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union claiming the New York Police Department had acted with “deliberate indifference” to scores of wrongful arrest complaints by residents and guests of Clean Halls building. That suit, Ligon v. The City of New York, was decided two weeks ago in favor of the plaintiffs whose stories of harassment, detention, and violation of basic civil rights were confirmed by Southern District of New York Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin.

Ligon is a landmark ruling because it recognizes what opponents of Clean Halls and the broader regime of Stop-and-Frisk have claimed for years: The police operate outside the strictures of their own programs and question, harass, and exercise a kind of control not regulated by law but a product of the street-level power they wield. Furthermore, the NYPD sanctions this behavior on institutional level. Officers are directed to violate people’s rights. And finally, police then lie about their motivations in their paperwork, justifying their behavior after the fact.

In Charles’ incident, Santiago claimed they had seen him in a hallway of the building “suspiciously walking back and forth” for two or three minutes. Judge Scheindlin wrote dryly in her ruling: “Officer Santiago claimed that he was able to see Bradley’s suspicious behavior even though he was inside a police van parked across the street, 20 or 30 feet from the door, separated from Bradley not only by the street but by the windows of the front door, a vestibule, the windows of an inner door, and the hallway.”

But let’s give Santiago a break, he was on the 12th hour of a double shift and clearly hadn’t the patience for the fumbling responses of a middle-aged man confused about the whereabouts of his fiancée. It was his job to patrol for suspicious activity, and Charles might have been acting suspiciously.

This is where the tendrils of Stop-and-Frisk and Operation Clean Halls meet the historical injustices of the American experience. Whether you believe that Santiago was just doing his job, or that police presence in high-crime neighborhoods in cities across the country are a net-good, you can’t argue that people in these neighborhoods, who are mostly poor and of color, are getting a fair shake. Being harassed at your doorstep or on your street when you’ve done nothing wrong would never be tolerated if it happened elsewhere. This is state power overreaching its bounds.

But crime in New York is down, so Stop-and-Frisk, Clean Halls, and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's toughness has worked, right? Well, not really, it turns out.

We spoke to Alexis Karteron, one of the attorneys for the NYCLU, who represented the plaintiffs in this case alongside the Bronx Defenders, about how the NYPD doesn’t play by its own already unfair rules.

VICE: It seems like the judge essentially sanctioned the narratives described by the nine people and found police’s version was incorrect or fabricated.
Alexis Karteron: That’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the decision, having worked with some of these clients for a long time. It’s a nerve-racking experience to have to go to federal court and testify, so I’m really thrilled that the court found their stories credible.

Have there been other instances where judges have certified narratives in favor of the people being harassed by police?
Yes, it certainly has happened, but what’s important about this case is that it’s pointing out a pattern of behavior. People bring cases every day about improper arrest in the city. In fact, I think the NYPD last year spent something like $200 million on pay-outs for various lawsuits, not just Stop-and-Frisk lawsuits. There are a lot of cases like this floating around out there, but this case is unique because it’s a class action with so many people together. That convinced the judge there is a disturbing pattern at work here.

Would it be correct to say that this ruling was pretty conservative? That it wasn’t saying that the policy of Stop-and-Frisk is inherently bad, but the way it was implemented by police went against its guidelines?
Yes, we should be really clear because there has been some incorrect reporting done after the decision. We’re not attacking Stop-and-Frisk or Operation Clean Halls in concept, we’re attacking abuses of Stop-and-Frisk and abuses of the Clean Halls program. It’s not the case that Judge Scheindlin ordered the police to never stop anybody outside of a Clean Halls building. She said you’re not allowed to stop somebody unless you meet the legal standard, which is reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg insist that cops need the ability to act on their suspicions in order to keep crime low, because as cops their suspicions are always reasonable. Are they essentially defending the violation of people's rights? 
Yeah, I really don’t understand their reactions at all. I would say that I don’t think they’re admitting there have been problems. In fact they seem resolutely determined to be blind to the problems with Stop-and-Frisk and Operation Clean Halls, but it’s really incomprehensible. These stories are so similar, this stuff is clearly happening. People don’t come out and testify in federal court just to make stuff up, but that’s what you’d have to believe to believe Commissioner Kelly’s position on the case.

It is true that many residents of Clean Halls buildings want a police presence, right?
I think that’s true. We’re not against the program or the police presence in these buildings when it’s appropriate. I can promise you my clients don’t want to see the end to the program and they do feel like they need police protection, and we think they’re deserving of police protection. But that’s the thing: It has to be appropriate police protection and not abuse by police officers.

What would be appropriate? What made these cases inappropriate, for example?
The police were stopping people without any reason to think that the people they stopped were engaged in criminal activity.

Are NYPD sergeants training their officers to violate citizens’ rights?
That was exactly what Judge Scheindlin found here too. She found that the training is really problematic and isn’t teaching officers the appropriate constitutional standard. What she said was that the NYPD is basically training its officers to stop and question first then develop reasonable suspicion later. That's exactly backwards. 

The Bloomberg Administration makes the assumption that policies like this contribute to the reduction in violent crime we’ve seen across the city. Is that true?
The Bloomberg administration repeats that over and over again with no proof that it’s true. While Stop-and-Frisk hit an all-time high in 2011 with over 700,000 stops, we saw a decrease in stops in 2012 and crime did not go up. It really makes one wonder why they keep saying that when it’s clearly not true, and they have no proof that it’s true.

This case is just the first in three correct?
Yes, that’s correct. There are three major class actions pending that are challenging parts of the Stop-and-Frisk regime. One is the Floyd case, which is basically a challenge to the entire Stop-and-Frisk program. Our case is much more narrow and focused on Operation Clean Halls. The third case is focused on stop-and-arrest activity at public housing complexes around the city. But they’re certainly all connected, which is why they’re all pending before the same judge.

Does this signal the beginning of the end of Stop-and-Frisk?
Again, we don’t want to call for the end of Stop-and-Frisk, we want to call for the end of abuses in Stop-and-Frisk. Without question the problems that Judge Scheindlin found with the training is something that affects Stop-and-Frisk in all contexts. So it’s the Stop-and-Frisk policies at Clean Halls buildings, in public housing, and on the street. The NYPD tried to use that as a defense and say “we do all this training and we’re teaching officers the appropriate standards. We don’t need something that’s so focused on Clean Halls because we have this great training on stop-and-frisk generally.” And the judge totally rejected that. She said this training isn’t adequate and it’s teaching officers the wrong thing and they need to do something better.

What about people who say that stop-and-frisk is still inherently an abuse of institutional power?
Well I’d definitely say that the court recognized the power dynamic that’s at play. One of the things the judge said was that she remembered one of our clients saying “I don’t know anybody who feels they can walk away from a cop during a conversation.” What the police try to say it’s just a little consensual chat and not an actual stop. But you’re right, the dynamic of a cop coming up to you and demanding an explanation for your presence somewhere, demanding your I.D., holding it in their hand. We have no question that in circumstances like that everybody feels that they have to stand there and answer the cop’s questions. There’s just no question that it’s important to pay attention to that dynamic.

How would you react to activists who say that the actions of police undermine the rule of law and de-incentivize being a law-abiding citizen: running lights, harassing people, acting like thugs?
I’d say that’s exactly right, and that there’s a lot of research to support the notion that when people feel that institutions are fundamentally unfair they lose trust in them. That’s exactly the kind of thing that we worry about. People don’t want to cooperate with the police and report crimes they see when they have to worry that the police are going to lock them up for no reason. They don’t want to cooperate with the police when their last interaction with the police was really traumatizing and involved maybe being put up against a wall, or maybe being cursed at and disrespected.

What about the institutional racism in this dynamic?
There’s no question that the abuses of the stop-and-frisk regime in New York City have fallen almost entirely on the black and Latino communities. That’s exactly why we have a race discrimination claim in the case, though that wasn’t an issue in the decision this week. It’s certainly a dynamic we’re conscious of and think is abhorrent, and we want to put an end to. There’s no question that the black and Latino communities have borne the brunt of these practices and that’s part of the reason why we think they’re being illegally practiced.

So the judge granted an injunction. How is the injunction enforced?
That’s a really good question. It’s definitely something we’re concerned about, and frankly the evidence shows that it’s already happening. In the 11 stops that we put in the case, there wasn’t a single UF-250 filled out for any of them. Two of our clients were arrested, so there’s arrest paperwork, but the cops in both of those cases admitted they had not filled out the UF-250 even though they should have. So that dynamic is definitely something we’re concerned about. One of the things we do is to keep talking to community members, and to keep talking about their experiences with the police. Part of what we’re going to be looking for is ensuring that the NYPD makes clear again and again to police officers that they have to fill out the appropriate paperwork when they engage in stops like this, and there are consequences if they don’t. That’s exactly the kind of accountability that’s been lacking thus far.

The issue is that cops kind of act with impunity, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s exactly what we worry about. We don’t have any illusions that lawsuits totally fix problems, you know? There are human beings involved, there are dynamics that have taken years to develop. We’re under no illusion that a lawsuit will be the be-all-end-all to fix the problems, but we’re hopeful that it will play a valuable role in fixing them.

What about state-wide legislation that could help, like Governor Cuomo suggesting decriminalizing marijuana?
That’s certainly our hope, yes. We’ve seen a lot of abuse over the years. When cops stop people they seem to be routinely conducting illegal searches. When you stop somebody you’re allowed to frisk them, which is a pat-down, outside their clothes to make sure they don’t have any weapons. And they’re only supposed to do that if they have a reasonable fear for their safety. What we found instead is that cops are routinely searching people by sticking their hands in their pockets, or making people empty their pockets in a way that is totally unconstitutional. Part of that seems to be a motivation to see if a person has drugs and then they can subsequently arrest them for having those drugs and charge them with possession. I think decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana will almost certainly reduce the incentive that some police officers have to get people to empty their pockets or conduct an illegal search to find it themselves.

What are the next cases coming up?
For background first, the judge did find that the NYPD has been deliberately indifferent to this practice, and she ordered them to cease the practice of making unjustified stops outside of Clean Halls buildings in the Bronx immediately.

She found that she believes there’s been this pattern of unconstitutional behavior. She laid out some possible ways to fix that, regarding the adoption of a new policy and some improved training for and supervision of the NYPD officers. She said that she felt like the parties had not had a chance to fully explore what the appropriate remedies would be. That’s why she’s having us come back to court in March with the Floyd case to make evidentiary presentations about the appropriate relief to fix this problem. The next major thing happening is that the Floyd case is going to trial in March. So similar to the proceeding we had in October they’ll be having plaintiffs testify about their illegal stops. I imagine they’ll also have other people who aren’t plaintiffs in the case but have suffered from similar stops testify about their experiences. Obviously I don’t know for sure what the presentations will look like, but if I were to guess I imagine it would look a lot like our hearing in October: NYPD brass talking about how important it is to have Stop-and-Frisk in place and how it helps them to fight crime, and presentations about their training and supervision practices.