February seems an appropriate time to mention the name Lewis Valentine. Prior to Ray Kelly, no one had served longer at the helm of the NYPD than LaGuardia’s man. Valentine, a foe of police corruption, was commissioner during the “Little Flower’s” three terms (1934–1945). Since then, 19 other men have held the reins, none for longer than five years. Given that this is his second stint (the first from 1992–1994), Kelly is now the longest-serving police chief in the city’s history.
Despite many ongoing controversies over his department’s aggressive policies, Kelly remains a hugely popular figure, registering a 75 percent approval rating in a mid-January poll. By contrast, Kelly’s boss usually checks in about 20 points lower (although, as Mayor Bloomberg told the Atlantic Wire this past fall, high approval numbers at this stage would mean “I wasted my last years in office.”). Kelly finally seems to have put the kibosh on the persistent rumors that he would run for mayor. But the front-runner, Democrat Christine Quinn, recently told a National Action Network gathering that the city would be “lucky” to have Kelly continue to serve as commissioner.
Kelly’s popularity and prominence—not to mention the city’s record-low murder rate in recent years—give him superhero-like status. And in the fawning columns of Mike Lupica or in a 60 Minutes profile, the explanations given by the commish and his supporters for his policies could be lifted straight from comic books. This Iron Man-like figure simply wants to stop terrorism, end violent crime, and defend the city he loves. Even so, public outcry is rising in opposition to one of Kelly’s staple policies, stop and frisk. Yet the warrior-commissioner valiantly soldiers on, his overall approval rating rising despite the specific criticisms.
Kelly has adamantly rejected the mounting challenges to stop and frisk. Speaking at a Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce event last August, Kelly defended the policy. “Yes, we do rely on a proactive policy of engaging,” he stated. “We utilize the long-established right of police to question individuals about whom we have reasonable suspicion.” What constitutes such suspicion is an open question. But at the 92nd Street Y conversation in early January, the commissioner warned that if the policy is eliminated, those living in high-crime neighborhoods “are going to suffer.”
Meanwhile, critics of stop and frisk (myself included) never fail to mention the overwhelming discrepancy between the numbers of stops and the number of arrests (about 12 percent of the stops in 2011 resulted in an arrest or summons; only one percent produced weapons). In raw numbers, that means that more than 600,000 times in that one year alone, the NYPD frisked innocent people. And, of course, the overwhelming majority of those targeted by the policy are young black and Latino males.
In explaining such discrepancies, many point to the pressures created by CompStat, the NYPD’s statistical tracking system. Since precincts are evaluated by their success in reducing crime rates, there’s considerable pressure at all levels to demonstrate numerical effectiveness. As New York Magazine’s Chris Smith illustrated in detail last spring, “The heat put on supervisors in CompStat gets passed to middle management, then on to the cops in the street.” In response, the easiest way for precincts to show that something is being done to counteract crime is to present evidence of an increased number of stops. And as Kelly explained to Smith, “We have metrics, like the rest of the world has metrics.”
That those metrics show a low ratio of successful stops might suggest a problem. But at the same time, it’s quite possible that the commissioner does not interpret the numbers the same way as his critics. As Joe Pascarella, a recently retired NYPD captain, told me, Kelly and company see “every stop as successful, because it asserts that the police are controlling disorder.” The practice, he says, invariably causes people to be detained “for no reason other than deterrence.”
State Senator Eric Adams, also a former NYPD captain, offers a similar view. Adams has stated several times over the past few years that Kelly’s main reason for stop and frisk is “to instill fear of the police.” Along with then-assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, State Senator Marty Golden, and then-governor David Patterson, Adams met with Kelly at Medgar Evers College in 2010. As Adams explained to Capital New York’s Reid Pillifant, the commissioner told the gathering that: “If we can get the target group who are committing crimes to think that any time they leave their house, they will be searched, they will be reluctant to carry a weapon.” Simply belonging to the “target group” thus becomes the grounds for the stops.
To date, Kelly has not publicly disputed Adams’s account of what was said at that meeting. Currently a candidate for Brooklyn Borough President, Adams maintains that, “When used properly, stop and frisk can be a useful law enforcement tool. But when the police commissioner himself believes it should be used to instill fear in a specific type of person or community, it is clearly being abused.” As the numbers suggest, rather than a “tool” used by officers exercising discretion, stop and frisk is more like a blunt instrument meant to frighten those living in high-crime communities, regardless of whether they are law-abiding or not.
Whether the policy is constitutional depends on whether the stops meet the grounds of “reasonable suspicion” outlined in the Supreme Court’s 1968 Terry v. Ohio case. In ruling that stop and frisk was consistent with the Fourth Amendment’s provisions against unreasonable search and seizure, Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that the standard for a stop should be similar to the process of obtaining a warrant. In both instances, Warren wrote in his majority opinion, police, “must be able to point to specific and articulable facts” that justify the suspicion.
Over the last few years, about half of the stops by the NYPD have been attributed to a suspect’s “furtive movement.” As Captain Pascarella explains, this can mean “just about anything.” In general, he finds it “implausible” that so many people are acting suspiciously on a daily basis, as the frequency of the stops would suggest. Using Warren’s terms, it’s evident that the grounds for the detentions most often are neither specific nor articulable.
The battle over stop and frisk is currently being waged in the courts, both of law and public opinion. Stemming from the work of the NYCLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, federal judge Shira Scheindlin now has three related cases on her docket. In early January, she handed down her first ruling, finding the NYPD’s “Clean Halls” program, in which private landlords give the police entry to their buildings, and cops then use stop and frisk, to be illegal. (In late January, she stayed her own desist order, and will make a final ruling in March). Scheindlin is also expected to rule sometime this year on a case challenging the racial bias of the stops, to which she granted class-action status last spring. A third case also challenges the practice in public housing projects.
Led by Bob Gangi and the Urban Justice Center, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) is bringing together a wide-ranging coalition of groups to speak out against the practice. In Gangi’s view the NYPD’s practice of frequent detentions for no real reason “is the opposite of a hearts-and-minds strategy, and it’s producing a hostile relationship among those living in high-crime communities with the police.” To illustrate the point, Gangi points to the views collected in PROP’s November 2012 report “In Their Own Words.” A raft of anecdotes from those stopped stress a recurring theme—going about one’s daily business is no grounds for an encounter with the police.
The most recent poll numbers also show opinion rising against stop and frisk among city residents. On the whole, the number is 53–42 against the practice; but among blacks, the number reaches 70–28, and among Latinos 64–33, in opposition. Undaunted, Kelly vows that the continuation of stop and frisk nevertheless should be a “litmus test” for prospective mayoral candidates. He has denied reports of a deal to stay in his post if Quinn is elected. For her part, Quinn says that if Kelly were to stay, it would be without stop and frisk as a policy (a deal the commish seems unlikely to accept). Like many of her positions, Quinn’s stance toward Kelly is based on a close reading of poll numbers.
And the final front of the battle over the issue is the local media. While the editorial boards of the Daily News and the Post clearly back Kelly on stop and frisk (and just about every other issue), the Times has strongly sided with the opponents of the NYPD’s stops practice. Even so, on the same day (January 26) that the Times issued a strong editorial in support of Judge Scheindlin’s initial ruling on the “Clean Halls” program, the paper ran a front-page story connecting stop and frisk to hot-spot policing and other successful crime-fighting strategies. Conspicuously, the story neglected to mention the point repeatedly stressed by Columbia’s Jeffrey Fagan and the NYCLU—i.e. that other major cities, including Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Baltimore, have reduced violent crime at an even greater rate than New York without relying on aggressive use of the stops policy.
Over the coming months, especially as the mayoral campaign takes shape, stop and frisk will be front and center of the discussion here in the city. While supporters of Kelly cheer him on, the legal battle continues in the courts, and critics debate the issue in local media, another thing remains certain: every day, hundreds of innocent people will be detained by the NYPD just for walking down the street.