New York's unusual plan to build minority confidence in its cops

In a bid to ease tensions, the New York Police Department will dramatically reform its stop-and-frisk policy, giving those stopped but not arrested a written explanation and a badge number.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
New York City police officers, here standing outside of a shooting scene at a federal building in Lower Manhattan earlier this month, will soon begin giving 'receipts' to those they stop, question, or frisk on the street but do not arrest.

As police departments across the nation reevaluate their encounters with citizens on the streets in a post-Ferguson era, the country’s largest police force will begin giving “receipts” to those stopped, questioned, or frisked but then allowed to go on about their day.

On Sept. 21, beat cops with the New York Police Department will start giving any person they stop, but do not end up arresting, an information card that will explain why he or she was stopped in the first place. The card – now being dubbed a “receipt” – will include the officer’s name and badge number, as well as information on how to make a complaint, if necessary.

Just a few years ago, New York’s famous mean streets included one of the most aggressive police departments in the nation. Police flooded high-crime neighborhoods, stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of people each year – a proactive policing tactic meant to nip crime before it started.

But nearly 9 of 10 of those stopped were never arrested or charged with a crime, and the vast majority of those stopped – more than 85 percent – were black and Latino men. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that the reasons given for many of these stops – such as walking in a “high crime neighborhood” or somehow exhibiting a “furtive movement” – hardly met the constitutional “reasonable suspicion” standard for searches.

The new receipt program represents a dramatic turnabout for the department. Most experts believe its is the first of its kind, and its timing is significant. With the Obama administration and policing theorists promoting “community policing” – getting beat cops to become more attuned with local neighborhoods – it could resonate beyond New York, if successful.

“This is all over the literature now – police legitimacy, fairness in policing,” says Edward Connors, president of the Institute for Law and Justice in Williamsburg, Va.

This new police procedure could help change the tone when citizens interact with police on the streets, he adds.

“There’s no solid science behind it yet, but from the psychology field, it’s been a theory that’s been tested and has shown a lot of promise: that if you treat people fairly and give them an explanation – maybe they’re not happy, like in the case of someone who gets a traffic ticket – but they understand and they might feel that some justice has been done.”

The federal case against the NYPD two years ago in many ways set the stage for the nationwide unrest and Black Lives Matter protest movement, which were sparked by the perception of aggressive policing in minority communities. After the deaths of black men such as Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, many activists and experts have begun to scrutinize even the most basic police procedures.

“Officers everywhere are expected to tell people they stop the purpose for the stop,” says Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs, a professional association of police executives in Salt Lake City. And across the nation, he notes, “departments are also working harder to ensure officers provide a clear statement of their reasonable suspicion to make the stop on the forms they use to document the encounter.”

Under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the number of stop-and-frisks in New York City has fallen dramatically, to about 50,000 per year, down from a high of nearly 700,000 stops in 2011. But again, nearly 8 out 10 are still not arrested or charged with a crime.

The new receipt program is being instituted by the department on the recommendation of the federal judge and the monitor appointed as a part of the federal case. For people stopped but not arrested, the receipt will explain "What Is a Stop?" It describes the penal law giving the officer the authority to make a stop based on “reasonable suspicion,” and includes checkoff boxes that explain what the officer’s initial suspicion may have been. These include “acting as a lookout,” “engaging in a drug transaction,” or “matches a specific suspect’s description,” among others.

The receipt would also include the officer’s name, rank and shield number, as well as the numbers for the department’s internal affairs bureau and the city’s Citizens Complaint Review Board.

“A tense moment is when a civilian says to a police officer, ‘What is your badge number,' ” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former police officer, told the local ABC affiliate in New York, noting that these stop receipts could eliminate that tension.

“If you are an active cop in a high crime area and you're doing your job and some bad guy wants to report you for doing your job, the police department has never held that against you,” he said.

After the federal stop-and-frisk case, the de Blasio administration has also instituted a number of reforms, including pilot programs with body cameras, new community policing programs giving officers more time to walk their beats instead of answering 911 calls, and new training that emphasizes deescalating conflicts and clearer rules for the use of force.

But many of the rank and file of the NYPD still remain bitter at the 2013 court case, and the new receipt policy is being criticized by many police union leaders.

“They are just one more item on the ever-growing list of anti-public-safety measures that will put an end to proactive policing in this city and ultimately accelerate the increase in crime and disorder that we are already seeing in our public spaces,” said Patrick Lynch, head of the NYPD’s patrolman’s union, in a statement.

“It is time for our policymakers to stop heaping new burdens on police officers and to figure out how unwind the damaging measures that are already in place before the erosion in public safety does serious damage to NYC's economic health,” he said.

Some experts counter that efforts like this, making police explain street encounters, could help reduce the tensions now engulfing many jurisdictions throughout the nation.

Mr. Connors at the Institute for Law and Justice suggests that the department take a sample of those stopped to measure how well it may be easing tensions on the streets. “I think it’s a great possibility.”

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