Police Attitudes Toward "Stop & Frisk"
Using the stated policies of the NYPD, NYPD-generated survey data, and the statements of a number of current and former New York City police officers as a basis, Part III attempts to provide the Department's view of "stop & frisk" as a day-to-day part of police work.
A. Police Attitudes Toward the Public: A Look At Recent NYPD Survey Data
Every year, tens of thousands of New York City police officers participate in "stop & frisk" encounters with civilians,63 making "stop & frisk" a common experience for officers throughout the Department. Survey data concerning police officers in general, and NYPD cops in particular, give some indication of the attitudes that NYPD officers take into the many and varied "stop & frisk" encounters they initiate each year.
Social science research going back as far as the 1960s suggests that it is common for police officers to feel isolated from the public that they are sworn to protect.64 Officers of the NYPD are no different, in this sense, from officers elsewhere in the Nation. A 1994 survey of active-duty NYPD officers found that more than 90% of officer-respondents agreed with the statement: "The public has no understanding of police problems." More than 80% agreed that: "The public believes police use too much force" in their work. 65 Although, in fact, other survey data suggest that, in general, the public's view of police is far more favorable than police officers generally believe,66 what the Department itself describes as an "Us vs. Them" mentality among its officers persists.67
Attitudes such as these do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in the context of police work which, by its nature, puts officers in personal jeopardy, and often requires officers to assert authority over others. 68 The Department acknowledges that these two phenomena -- personal danger and the need to assert authority -- deeply affect officers' views of the world. In its 1995 Police Strategy on fighting police corruption, the Department put the matter this way: "Working together, the factors of danger and authority tend to make police officers constantly vigilant, suspicious, and ready to assert dominant authority" over civilians in situations where an officer's authority is questioned in even the most minor of ways.69 Necessarily, it would appear, the same vigilance that officers apply to detect criminality as part of their work becomes a "fact of life" for their interactions with the broader public.
B. Some Observations From Individual Officers
For further insight into police attitudes toward "stop & frisk," the OAG interviewed several current and former NYPD officials and officers. At one time or another, all of the interviewees had served as uniformed patrol officers. Many went on to become plainclothes officers (in precinct-based and in specialized units, including the Street Crime Unit), supervisors, precinct commanders, and higher ranking officials. The interviewees were of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and represented a range of experience levels. For ease of reference, all current and former sworn members of the service interviewed by the OAG are referred to as "officers," except where reference to their specific experience is relevant.70
The interviews began with a discussion of the officers' experience in the Department, including questions about the number of years the person spent on the force, his various assignments, and the extent to which "stop & frisk" was a part of his everyday work life. As the discussion focused on "stop & frisk" as a technique, one thing quickly became clear: From the point of view of individual police officers, the experience of a street encounter is an intensely personal one. "Stop & frisk" represents a moment in time when an officer confronts a civilian unknown to him or her, in public and often in front of other witnesses, and utilizes his or her authority to detain and question that person.71
Interviewees asked to describe the "stop & frisk" experience consistently focused on the perceived danger to officers associated with the tactic. In public testimony in April, Commissioner Safir spoke of "stop & frisk" encounters as "inherently dangerous[,] . . . often involving loaded firearms and dangerous criminals." 72 The Commissioner's characterizations of these encounters, and his focus on the "personal safety of the police officer," reflect the attitude of officers interviewed by the OAG. From their point of view, "stop & frisk" is where "cops put their lives on the line" to deter, investigate, and solve crime. Every such encounter raises the question "whether the cop is going home at the end of his tour."73 Concluded one officer: "This is about going home."
To be sure, every officer interviewed by the OAG could identify the basic legal standards: "reasonable suspicion" v. "mere suspicion," and "common law inquiry" v. Terry "stop," to cite two examples. These abstract concepts, however, diminished in importance in the face of the perceived danger associated with actual encounters. As one officer put it, "Wherever an officer feels in jeopardy [in a street encounter], like [when responding to] a gun run,' there will be a frisk." Asked about how legal concepts would play into the decision to frisk in that circumstance, the officer replied: "Let's argue about [that] in court."
Officers' focus on the dangerous nature of "stop & frisk" encounters is partially explained by their understanding of the role of "stop & frisk" in furthering the Department's overall objectives. Virtually every interviewee expressed the view that "stop & frisk" is an integral part of the Department's goal to rid the streets of illegal weapons and violent criminals. The use of "stop & frisk" to "get a gun collar" or to find a rapist or robber was a common theme in these interviews.74 To the extent that the "stop & frisk" technique is being deliberately applied to circumstances where weapons are presumed to be involved, officers' concerns about their safety are not surprising.
A third theme that emerged from these interviews concerned the perceived disconnect between the standards set forth in Terry, De Bour and ever-developing case law, and the day-to-day circumstances faced by officers on the street. Many officers said that the legal standards do not readily translate into straightforward rules of conduct which officers can apply in the fluid environment of a street encounter. Officers expressed frustration at what they viewed as the "fine lines" established by the courts; they argued that courts reviewing similar fact patterns sometimes reach different legal conclusions about whether the standard of "reasonable suspicion" has been met. As one officer put it: "Reasonable people differ [about] what is reasonable. So do judges."75 This suggestion that legal distinctions of the sort called for in "stop & frisk" encounters are for courts, not cops, to decide was common. Ultimately, most officers expressed exasperation at the (perceived) inconsistencies in the law of "stop & frisk."
In several interviews, the conduct and attitudes of "supervisors" -- sergeants and lieutenants responsible for day-to-day operations on the street -- was cited as an important factor in determining the degree to which line officers take seriously the legal standards of "stop & frisk." "The supervisor sets the tone," said one former supervisor of a specialized unit of the Department. Supervisors who regularly follow up with officers on the scene of a "stop & frisk" encounter, regularly review UF-250 forms to determine that "stops" are properly performed, and regularly point out deficiencies when they are identified, send a strong signal that adherence to legal standards is an important element of police work.76
Finally, there was general agreement among those interviewed that not every "stop" which, by rule, would require the completion of a UF-250 form actually results in the completion of such a form. Among the officers interviewed by the OAG, however, there was no clear consensus about the degree to which "stop" encounters are underreported, or why.
For example, one former supervisor of a specialized unit reported that, in his experience, UF-250 forms were completed "fairly regularly," but not always. The supervisor stated that a "stop" which leads to an arrest is most likely to be the kind of "stop" for which no UF-250 is completed. In an arrest situation, the supervisor explained, the arresting officer must complete an on-line booking sheet, a property voucher, and other paperwork to process the prisoner; "[UF-]250's are just excess Rosario material" -- that is, material that defense lawyers can use to cross-examine the officer at trial.
On the other hand, other officers stated their belief that, routinely, "stops" are not reflected in completed UF-250's forms. Some estimated that only one in three "stops" is documented; others said only one in five. The reasons for this (perceived) failure to adhere to the rules were varied: considerations of time, convenience, and necessity were frequently cited. Notably, the general consensus was that officers were more likely to complete the forms and document a "stop" where there was the possibility that a civilian might later complain about the officer's conduct.77
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The NYPD approach to "stop & frisk" is complex and multi-faceted. It expresses itself in broad Departmental policies, and it is reflected in individual officer attitudes. This exploration of the Department's approach is designed to provide context to the perspectives of other interested constituencies and the findings of the OAG's statistical review that follow.
63 NYPD-generated UF-250 data demonstrates that more than 20,000 different officers were involved in approximately 175,000 documented "stop & frisk" encounters that occurred between January 1998 and April 1999.
64 J.H. Skolnick, Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society ("Skolnick") (1966) at 53-54, 62-65; see also J.H. Skolnick, Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in a Democratic Society ("Skolnick") (3rd ed. 1994) at 52-60, 65-66.
65 Police Strategy No. 7, Rooting Out Corruption; Building Organizational Integrity in the New York Police Department ("Police Strategy No. 7") (1995) at 22.
66 Police Strategy No. 7, at 22 (citing a 1994 poll which indicated that "73% of city residents believe the average New York City police officer is very' or somewhat honest.'").
67 Police Strategy No. 7, at 24.
68 See Skolnick, at 53-54, 65 & 67.
69 Police Strategy No. 7, at 14.
70 One cautionary note is in order: The NYPD is comprised of more than 40,000 sworn officers, in dozens of separate commands. In an organization of that size and complexity, there can be no one, monolithic view of an experience as nuanced and textured as "stop & frisk." Indeed, it is reasonable to assume there are as many views on the experience as there are active and retired officers. For this reason, the OAG does not assert that its informal discussion groups with officers constitute a statistically significant sample or that the views discussed below are representative of the position of the Department as a whole.
71 Officers sometimes referred to the act of "stopping" and/or frisking a suspect by the slang expression "tossing."
72 Safir Statement, at 9.
73 Such attitudes are consistent with the extreme vigilance and suspicion which Skolnick identified as a natural outgrowth of the danger-authority axis.
74 One visual representation of this experience was provided in the form of a photograph shown to the OAG by an officer. The photo shows a large handwritten poster on an easel in an NYPD stationhouse. Listed on the poster are four recent violent crimes and general descriptions of suspects in those crimes. At the bottom, in large letters, are the words "TOSS TOSS TOSS" -- an informal expression referring to "stop & frisk."
75 In his April testimony, Commissioner Safir made the same point. "[E]ven United States Attorneys and federal judges," he said, "may differ on what is an appropriate stop and frisk." Safir Statement, at 9.
76 One former senior NYPD official took the position that problems in articulating "reasonable suspicion" should be treated as training issues rather than disciplinary ones, on the theory that the Department wants to encourage lawful street encounters, not discourage all street encounters.
77 This sentiment is consistent with one of the primary stated rationales for completing the UF-250 form: to protect the officer and the Department from charges of improper conduct. See Preparation of a Stop and Frisk Report, at 1.