Stop and Frisk on Trial

By A. G. Moore 3/23/2013

The Tombs Prison in NYC, Circa 1896

Photo from the Library of Congress
A little more than a year ago I wrote a blog about Ramarley Graham, an unarmed Bronx, NY resident who was shot to death in his home during a police action. NYPD officer Richard Haste was charged with first and second degree manslaughter in the case. In June of 2012 Haste plead not guilty to the charges and was released on bail.

The courtroom on the day of Officer Haste’s indictment offered insight into two perspectives on this crime: on one side benches were filled with police officers who rallied around Mr. Haste and on the other were seated the grieving relatives and supporters of Mr. Graham.

How many times has New York–and have other cities–played out the drama of police vs. an aggrieved family?

In the instance of Ramarley Graham’s death, we can point to the loss of life and mourn with his family. And, as reasonable people, we can try to understand the mindset that would lead a police officer to pursue and kill an unarmed man who was not engaged in significant criminal activity and who did not pose a direct threat to anyone.

It would be easy to use broad strokes to describe the dynamics of this situation. But where would that get us, except in yet another courtroom with yet another grieving family and accused police officer.

Instead of using those broad strokes, I think it’s more productive to look at law enforcement policy, the policy which places police and individuals in highly-charged, tragic situations. Two articles in this week’s New York Times touched upon relevant policy. One article, Bronx Inspector, Secretly Taped, Suggests Race Is a Factor in Stops, describes the pressure applied to a patrol officer in a “high-crime” precinct. The officer, Pedro Serrano, doesn’t document enough Stop and Frisk events, according to statements by his supervisor, Deputy Inspector Christopher McCormack. In the conversation, which Serrano secretly recorded, Mr. McCormack complains that the police officer is not stopping enough of the “right people”. When pressed about who the “right people” are, McCormack declares, “male blacks, 14 to 20, 21″.

Stop and Frisk is on trial in New York City. The divisions evident in this trial over police policy very much reflect the divisions evident in the courtroom during Richard Haste’s indictment. NYPD official position is that Stop and Frisk reduces crime. Many in the target communities see Stop and Frisk as a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.

So far, until this trial, which is taking place before Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, Stop and Frisk has withstood most legal challenges. The authority for the policy comes straight from a Supreme Court decision, Terry vs. Ohio. This decision pretty much leaves up to a police officer’s discretion whether it’s appropriate to interfere in someone’s life: whether to demand that a person stop and submit to a pat down.

Technically, a stop under Terry is warranted only if the officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that a person has, is, or will be committing a crime. And the pat down only is warranted if the officer fears there may be a weapon present. Reasonable suspicion is not a very high threshold for a stop. Proof of this is that since 2002, 5,000,000 Stop and Frisk events have been recorded by the NYPD. Which leads me to conclude that either an overwhelming number of New Yorkers are suspicious characters, or the police department is playing fast and loose with Terry.

On its face, racial profiling as a basis for police stops has been prohibited by the Supreme Court  since 1975. But, as NYPD statistics reveal, the Court’s decision is very easy to get around, so long as a stopping officer can articulate a ‘reasonable suspicion’ as justification for the stop.

Officer Haste is responsible for his behavior in Ramarley Graham’s death, and a court will hold him accountable for that behavior. But the larger issue of police excess looms.

Supporters of Terry, and a similar decision, Whren vs. the U.S., generally feel their personal security is enhanced when police have greater freedom to exercise authority. These supporters do not fear an unrestrained police presence because they believe that, if they are white and middle class, they are not likely to be the focus of police attention. NYPD statistics on Stop and Frisk and the recorded conversation of NYPD Deputy Inspector McCormack pretty much support that belief.

But what I’d like the pro Stop and Frisk individuals to think about is the passion with which the Bill of Rights to the U. S. Constitution was drafted. Our forefathers well knew that encouraging an unrestrained police authority is like raising a pet tiger: it’s all well and good as long as the tiger doesn’t get annoyed. But beware the day the tiger turns. At that point the lack of restraints may come to be seen as a gross miscalculation.

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