Police Data Shows Increase in Street Stops
Despite criticism about aggressive policing, New York City police officers stopped more people on the streets during the first three months of 2008 than during any quarter in the six years the Police Department has reported the data.
The 145,098 stops from January through March — up from 134,029 during the same quarter a year earlier — led to 8,711 arrests and put the Bloomberg administration on course for the highest annual total. The numbers also reflect an increased reliance on a practice that has become an emotional flashpoint, particularly after the fatal police shooting of Sean Bell in 2006.
Street stops have gradually increased, to 508,540 in 2006 from 97,296 in 2002, according to departmental statistics. Because more than half of those stopped were black, the increases led some police critics to suggest that minorities were being unfairly singled out, though the police reject such claims.
Last year, there was a dip in the number of stops, to 468,932. If the numbers for the first quarter of 2008 continue apace, the Police Department could end the year with about 600,000 street stops.
“It’s a record number, there’s nothing even close,” said Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who has mapped the quarterly numbers provided by the Police Department.
Mr. Dunn’s analysis shows that the next highest tally of stops for a single quarter was 136,851, in the first three months of 2006.
To police officials, the practice of stopping civilians on the streets, to question and search them — sometimes looking for illegal guns — is just one of many crime-suppression tactics. The increased number shows that the department is standing by its strategy as a worthy practice, people in and outside of city government said.
“Stop-and-questioning or stop-and-frisks of individuals in connection with suspected criminal activity is an essential law enforcement tool,” said Assistant Chief Michael Collins, a police spokesman. “The number of stops conducted by police officers is driven by the situations they encounter on patrol.”
He added: “A look at the data classified by the race and gender of those stopped indicates that the percentages are nearly identical to last year. The data indicates no racial bias in the stops, but it does show a relationship between the percentage of individuals stopped and the descriptions of suspects as provided by crime victims or, in the case of murder, surviving witnesses.”
Peter F. Vallone Jr., the chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said: “The increase in numbers is a surprise to me because a politically correct reaction to the Bell trial might be to cut back on police and civilian interaction and to cut back on efforts to get illegal guns off the streets. But to the mayor’s and the police commissioner’s credit, they have not done that.”
The new quarterly numbers were released on Monday by Mr. Vallone’s office after police officials turned them over to the City Council on Friday. The new numbers show that 50.8 percent of the people stopped were black. That is consistent with the percentage stopped in prior years, Mr. Dunn said. About a fourth of the city’s residents are black, according to 2006 data.
Mr. Vallone raised the issue at a hearing Monday on other proposals to require more reporting by the police on firearms discharges and other matters.
The guidelines for monitoring stop-and-frisk encounters were set in a city law signed in 2001, and in a federal court case settled by the Bloomberg administration in 2004. Police officials now give the City Council a report, four times a year, disclosing how many people are stopped and questioned by officers — and sometimes frisked — and the reasons for the stops.
Those reports do not include all the data the department compiles on street stops, however, and Mr. Dunn said the civil liberties group needed access to all the data to determine whether race played a role.
After the department rejected the Council’s requests to turn over that database, the civil liberties group sued for access to it in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. The New York Times, the New York City Bar Association and 21 scholars from across the country have filed briefs in support of the suit. The case is pending.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly has said his officers do not practice racial profiling in making the stops. The department gave the database to the RAND Corporation, a private nonprofit organization, for an outside analysis, and to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, an organization based at the University of Michigan and financed by the Department of Justice, to format and distribute crime data to academic researchers.
The results of the RAND analysis were released in November and found “small racial differences in the rates of frisk, search, use of force and arrest.”
Mr. Dunn said the department appeared to have been emboldened by the RAND report.
“The numbers are troubling both because of the number of people stopped and because blacks continue to be, overwhelmingly, the ones who are stopped,” Mr. Dunn said. “Someone outside the Police Department, like the mayor’s office, the City Council or the Justice Department has now got to step in and demand a public accounting of the department’s stop-and-frisk practices.”
The police have said that while a large percentage of the street stops involve black people, an even larger percentage of crimes involve suspects described as black by their victims.
Mr. Dunn said less than 20 percent of the stops were attributable to a police officer’s response to a report about a suspect. “The vast majority of stops are the result of a police officer spontaneously stopping someone because of something they claim to have observed on the street,” he said.
Andrew Case, a spokesman for the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, said that even as stops have increased, the number of complaints about them has remained relatively steady.
“When we find misconduct for bad stops, we have seen lower and lower levels of discipline, and that might reduce the disincentives for committing bad stops,” he said. “The idea is that if officers are not worried about being punished, they might have less to fear if a stop is questionable.”