National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

Refresher on Stop & Frisk

The Michael Brown shooting has brought attention to certain police policies and how those policies scramble the opinions of liberals and conservatives.  Thus far, most of the attention has been on the militarization of police.  In this post, I want to briefly focus on another police tactic, “stop & frisk,”  and explain why this likely plays a part in the community unrest following the death of Michael Brown.

In 1968, the Supreme Court decided a case called Terry v. Ohio.  In that case, the Court approved the “stop & frisk” tactic.   Here is an excerpt from the Court’s opinion:

We … hold today that, where a police officer observes unusual conduct which leads him reasonably to conclude in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous, where, in the course of investigating this behavior, he identifies himself as a policeman and makes reasonable inquiries, and where nothing in the initial stages of the encounter serves to dispel his reasonable fear for his own or others’ safety, he is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him. (emphasis added).

Several things must be noted.  First, that is a rather sanitized description of what can happen out on the street (more on that below).

Second, in the 1990s, at the suggestion of conservative intellectual, James Q. Wilson, police officials like William Bratton tasked police units to go out and pro-actively stop & frisk city residents.  (Wilson is well known for his “broken windows” work, but his misguided promotion of stop & frisk is another reminder that ideas have consequences).  The number of stops–especially in New York City–started climbing.  The liberal Michael Bloomberg also championed the tactic when he became NYC Mayor after Rudy Giuliani.

Third, what happens if the police act unreasonably and use this tactic arbitrarily against people?  Persons holding contraband get busted, but what if there are tens of thousands of stops where the police officer’s actions were unreasonable against totally innocent persons?  Absent physical injury, who would take a day off of work to see an attorney about that?  And how many attorneys would take a case where there was an illegal 20 minute detention, illegal search of the person, and no injury?  No one.  For young, black men there has been no effective redress.  Anger and tensions simmer.  And when a young black man gets killed (recall Amadou Diallo ; and the shooting of Patrick Dorismond is also worth noting) the anger boils over into the protests and unrest we have seen in Ferguson.

The white experience with police is different because the police do not typically use the stop & frisk tactic in white communities.   Here is an example of what the complaints are about:

Short version reporting on the video that went viral:

Longer version (recommended):

Because these officers were “caught on tape,” the Philly Police Department was embarrassed and so took disciplinary action.  How many bad encounters are not captured on tape?  99%?

Back to the Michael Brown shooting.  We have been told that Officer Darren Wilson rolled up on Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson and told them to move to the sidewalk.  According to Johnson, Wilson started the interaction by cursing at them.  Did Wilson lose his temper after some back talk?  Or because he was dissatisfied with the speed with which the young men were complying with his command?  Did Wilson escalate the situation by grabbing Brown’s throat, as Johnson has said?  Did Brown passively resist by backing away so he could breath? (Recall poor Eric Garner  who lost his life waiting for the police to release their grasp!).    At some point, Wilson drew his weapon and shot Brown.  Several times.

Maybe Wilson was behaving like the abusive Philp Nace in the above video.  Maybe his conduct did not come close to that.  But these are some of the questions on the minds of minorities (and others) as the investigation continues.

More background on stop and frisk here and here.

 

 

 

 

False Arrests in Miami Gardens

From the Miami Herald:

Earl Sampson has been stopped and questioned by Miami Gardens police 258 times in four years….

Miami Gardens police have arrested Sampson 62 times for one offense: trespassing.

Almost every citation was issued at the same place: the 207 Quickstop, a convenience store on 207th Street in Miami Gardens.

But Sampson isn’t loitering. He works as a clerk at the Quickstop.

So how can he be trespassing when he works there?

It’s a question the store’s owner, Alex Saleh, 36, has been asking for more than a year as he watched Sampson, his other employees and his customers, day after day, being stopped and frisked by Miami Gardens police. Most of them, like Sampson, are poor and black….

Saleh was so troubled by what he saw that he decided to install video cameras in his store. Not to protect himself from criminals, because he says he has never been robbed. He installed the cameras — 15 of them — he said, to protect him and his customers from police….

The videos show, among other things, cops stopping citizens, questioning them, aggressively searching them and arresting them for trespassing when they have permission to be on the premises; officers conducting searches of Saleh’s business without search warrants or permission; using what appears to be excessive force on subjects who are clearly not resisting arrest and filing inaccurate police reports in connection with the arrests.

If the story checks out, Alex Saleh, should be nominated for an award of some kind.  How many Earl Sampsons are out there without a lawyer to defend their rights?  Without a supportive employer like Mr. Saleh?

Philadelphia Officer Philip Nace

From Philly.com:

Some officers turn into bad guys themselves. They’ve lost their badges amid allegations of assault, theft, rape, fraud and drug dealing. At least 68 city cops have been charged with crimes since March 2009.

But Officer Philip Nace – the YouTube sensation who has developed an international reputation as the angriest cop in the City of Brotherly Love – is perhaps the first Philly lawman to get benched for what a police spokesman described simply as “idiotic behavior.”

Lt. John Stanford said yesterday that Nace has been pulled off the street amid an expanding Internal Affairs probe sparked by viral videos out of North Philly’s 25th District, where the 46-year-old cop patrolled with an iron fist and a foul mouth.

One of the viral videos:

 

The “Lazy, not Lawless” Defense

From the New York Times:

The picture painted in court of the New York Police Department’s officers was not pretty.

Ten percent of them were malcontents who worked as little as possible. Unless they are being paid overtime, officers seem to avoid writing summonses. Indeed, some police officers need to be weaned of the idea that they are paid to drive around in their patrol cars, eating doughnuts.

And those sentiments came not from critics of the department, but from police commanders and city lawyers.

New Orleans Cops Caught on Tape

The police commander says he saw no wrongdoing in the video. Hmm.

A few questions:

1. What would have happened if the young man’s mother had not arrived so quickly?
2. What would have happened if she had not been a police officer herself?
3. What would happen if these undercover officers tried to swarm on a person who was carrying a firearm? The police often remind us that they must make split-second decisions. True.  But note that this tactic gives the citizen only a split second to decide if he’s being attacked by thugs or whether it’s a police stop.
4. The other day a columnist at the Wall Street Journal heaped praise on the stop and frisk tactics of the New York City Police Department. He said the police have an “uncanny” ability to discern who is carrying a gun. He is looking at paper statistics and gets a warped view of what’s actually happening out there. Consider two scenarios.  (A) The police swarm on someone. If they find a handgun, they take him downtown–paperwork shows arrest and gun confiscated. (B) How many times do the police swarm on a person, no gun is found, and the police just walk away as above? No paperwork on that (usually).  From the paper records, it is as if frightening incidents like this never even happened.

What if they happen a lot? What then?

The Truth About Police Lies

Professor Michelle Alexander in the New York Times:

Exposing police lying is difficult largely because it is rare for the police to admit their own lies or to acknowledge the lies of other officers. This reluctance derives partly from the code of silence that governs police practice and from the ways in which the system of mass incarceration is structured to reward dishonesty. But it’s also because police officers are human.

Research shows that ordinary human beings lie a lot — multiple times a day — even when there’s no clear benefit to lying. Generally, humans lie about relatively minor things like “I lost your phone number; that’s why I didn’t call” or “No, really, you don’t look fat.” But humans can also be persuaded to lie about far more important matters, especially if the lie will enhance or protect their reputation or standing in a group.

The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status. The fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, “get tough” mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.

Illegal Detentions by New York Police

From the New York Times:

The judge excoriated the city for flagrant indifference to the Fourth Amendment. The amendment has been interpreted by the courts to mean that police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime.

The department’s patently illegal strategy, the judge said, encouraged officers to “stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.” The ruling focuses on detentions that occurred as people were entering or leaving one of many residential buildings in the Bronx whose managers had simply asked the department to patrol the area and arrest trespassers. The Trespass Affidavit Program, or TAP, has thus not only led to unjustified detentions but has also placed untold numbers people at risk of detention merely for entering their own homes or visiting friends and relatives. Their experiences, as described in the ruling, makes perfectly clear why the largely minority citizens targeted and victimized by the program come away feeling angry and ill used.

Describing the typical, humiliating sequence of events, the judge wrote: “The police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.” She added that “attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van,” where he or she is grilled about drugs or weapons. In some cases, the stop escalates into an arrest, the judge noted, with the person fingerprinted and held overnight. Even if the charges are quickly dropped, the arrest can follow the person for years.

Previous coverage here.

Judge Finds ‘Deliberate Indifference’ by NYPD

From the New York Law Journal:

In sum, while it may be difficult to say where, precisely, to draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional police encounters, such a line exists, and the NYPD has systematically crossed it when making trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx,” Scheindlin said. “For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat.

For more background, go here.