New York Law School

The Community Safety Act

It can happen anywhere. Walking home from school. Walking to the grocery store. Walking to the subway. Thousands of New Yorkers are stopped and frisked by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers every year.  Stop-and-frisk consists of two separate acts with respective levels of legal justification.  When a police officer has reasonable suspicion that a person is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime, the officer may stop that person; however, in order to “frisk” or search that person, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the person stopped has a deadly weapon or instrument.  Stop-and-frisk is a tool used by the NYPD to improve public safety. However, stop-and-frisk practices are criticized for its use of bias-based profiling, and unjustifiable “frisks” of citizens. The Community Safety Act is a legislative packet that seeks to improve stop-and-frisk practices by prohibiting bias-based profiling (Introduction 800), requiring greater communication by NYPD to citizens (Introduction 799 and Introduction 801), and improving the transparency and oversight of the NYPD (Introduction 881).

Introduction 800 seeks to eliminate bias-based profiling by police officers.  According to a Stop-and-Frisk brief published by the New York Civil Liberties Union (hereinafter NYCLU brief), the NYPD conducted 160,851 stops in 2003, and 685,724 stops in 2011.  Of the 685,724 stops in 2011, 52.9 percent of the people stopped were black, and 33.7 percent of the people stopped were Latino. While black and Latino men between the ages of 14 and 24 account for 4.7 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 41.6 percent of the stops in the 2011.  Jeffrey Fagan, a Professor of Law and Public Health at Columbia University, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School and a Fellow at the Straus Institute for Advanced Study of Law & Justice at New York University School of Law prepared an expert report on behalf of the plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York (hereinafter Fagan Report). The Fagan report concluded that black and Hispanic men are more likely to be stopped, when accounting for the racial composition of the community, crime rates and allocation of police resources. The NYCLU brief and the Fagan report suggest that an individual’s race is the determining factor used by police officers. Introduction 800 would prohibit the NYPD from “relying, to any degree on actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, religion, national origin, age, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration or citizenship status, language, disability, housing status, occupation, or socioeconomic status as the determinative factor in initiating law enforcement action against an individual.” In theory, the NYPD would be prohibited from relying on race in its stop-and-frisk procedures. In order to be effective in practice, the NYPD’s procedures need to be reevaluated in order to properly address bias-based policing practices.

Introduction 799 would require police officers to provide notice and obtain proof of consent to search individuals. The NYCLU brief concluded that in 2011, 55.7 percent of individuals stopped were also frisked, and only 1.9 percent of “frisks” resulted in a weapon found.  The NYCLU brief suggest that the incongruence between the number of people frisked and weapons found demonstrates that police officers are unjustifiably engaged in frisks of civilians.  The frisks are unjustifiable because police officers lack the required justification of “reasonable suspicion” that the person stopped possesses a weapon. Introduction 801 would require that police officers provide their name and rank to persons stopped and frisked. The officer would be required to provide a specific reason for the stop, and a business card to the person stopped, that includes information on filing a complaint.  Introduction 799 would provide needed communication to and potential remedy for individuals stopped and frisked. By requiring the NYPD to communicate privacy rights including the right to refuse a search, Introduction 799 and Introduction 801 might be effective in reducing the number of unjustifiable frisks. However, Introduction 799 would be more effective when accompanied by a reevaluation of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk procedures.

Introduction 799 addresses the need for transparency of the NYPD. In the past, the New York City Council has enacted legislation requiring the NYPD to provide quarterly reports about stop-and-frisk activity. For several years, the NYPD failed to provide these quarterly reports. The NYCLU obtained information about stop-and-frisk activity through court order. Introduction 799 would require the NYPD to provide the City Council with information on number of searches performed, and the race and age of each person searched.  Relatedly, Introduction 881 addresses the lack of oversight and accountability of the NYPD.  According to a New York Times article, “An Inspector General for the Police,” the NYPD is monitored by two external oversight agencies, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. The Civilian Complaint Review Board has investigated complaints of persons stopped and frisked. However, when the Civilian Complaint Review Board completes its investigation, the NYPD commissioner has the final authority on appropriate disciplinary conduct.  The Commission to Combat Police Corruption lacks subpoena power. The Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption do not sufficiently monitor the NYPD’s policing practices.  Introduction 881 requires the creation of an Office of the Inspector General to monitor the NYPD.  An Inspector General would have subpoena power, and more importantly authority to review NYPD policies. The Federal Bureau of Investigations, Central Intelligence Agency, the Los Angeles Police Department, and New York government agencies, including the Department of Education, Department of Corrections and the Fire Department of New York  has an Inspector General mechanisms that provides independent oversight.

If the Community Safety Act is enacted, its effectiveness will hinge on education of the public and cooperation of the NYPD. Many community-based interest groups provide information regarding issues related to stop-and-frisk activities. The NYCLU has developed a “Stop-and-Frisk Watch” application that enables civilians to monitor and report stop-and-frisk activity through their mobile devices. The Community Safety Act will improve accountability of the NYPD by operation of law.  For the Community Safety Act to be effective in practice, the NYPD must cooperate with independent oversight agencies in reevaluating its stop-and-frisk procedures. 

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