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Why the NYPD is Determined to Hide What It’s Up To

The NYC Council has an opportunity to create a critical window into the NYPD's actions.

NYPD officer standing i front of construction
By: Michael Sisitzky Assistant Director, Policy

Data plays a critical role in exposing and challenging abusive and discriminatory policing.

It enables policymakers to engage in meaningful oversight, equips advocates and the communities most impacted by policing with information that can be used to push for better laws and budget priorities, and it sends a clear message that police officers are public officials and their actions should not be hidden behind a cloak of secrecy.

Police departments know this, too. It’s why they’ve so often been opposed to even simple transparency measures. In 2001, the New York City Council passed a law requiring the NYPD to begin reporting data on stop-and-frisk activity, so that city officials could better identify and respond to any patterns of racial profiling. It didn’t take long for the NYPD to shirk their legal responsibility.

In 2006, the NYCLU learned that the NYPD had been ignoring its reporting obligations and that it had failed to provide the Council with comprehensive data since 2003. Following mounting public pressure and legal challenges, the NYPD finally began releasing its stop-and-frisk data, and the NYCLU started our own regular analysis of that data – an analysis that we continue to do today.

The numbers were shocking. Hundreds of thousands of people – overwhelmingly Black and Latinx men – were being stopped each year, many of them repeatedly, and with the vast majority never being charged with any criminal wrongdoing.

Once the data was public, it became impossible to deny the reality of the situation, namely that the NYPD was engaging in racial profiling on a vast and unaccountable basis. In 2011 alone, the NYPD carried out nearly 700,000 stops, 87 percent of which targeted Black and Latinx people, and 88 percent of which led to neither a summons being issued nor an arrest being made.

Armed with this data, communities mobilized to demand changes to NYPD practices and to city law. In the courtroom, a federal judge found the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional. And in City Hall, advocates – including the NYCLU and our partners in Communities United for Police Reform – not only won initial passage of a package of bills to combat police abuse, but also mounted a successful effort to override a mayoral veto of the legislation.

Today, stop-and-frisk activity is far below the recorded levels at its 2011 height, though racial disparities remain deeply embedded. But the stop numbers don’t reflect the true scope of all NYPD investigative encounters in communities. The federal monitor appointed to oversee reforms related to the earlier litigation challenging stop-and-frisk practices has repeatedly pointed out problems related to officers undercounting and underreporting stop activity.

Now, the City Council has the opportunity to shine new light on these encounters and, for the first time, provide the public with a comprehensive accounting of all investigative encounters that take place throughout the city.

Beyond the undercounts lies an even more glaring data gap. The “stops” that the NYPD reports on do not encompass the full universe of police investigative encounters that take place.

New York case law recognizes four different “levels” of police investigative encounters, of which a “stop” – an encounter in which an officer has reasonable suspicion to detain someone – is level three. Below formal stops are level one encounters, in which an officer can approach someone to ask what are supposed to be non-threatening questions based on “an objective credible reason,” and level two encounters, in which an officer can ask more pointed and accusatory questions based on a “founded suspicion” that criminal activity is afoot. Level four, meanwhile, is where an officer has probable cause to make an arrest.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Police officers are supposed to know the difference between these levels and what types of questions they’re allowed to ask based on them, but to a random New Yorker who has been asked to consent to a search of their backpack – which officers can do at levels two and three but not at one – what matters is the fact that an officer has interrupted their day and targeted them for some kind of investigation.

The NYCLU has long been concerned with the lack of transparency around level one and level two encounters and with the potential for abuse that becomes easier for the NYPD to hide in the absence of any real oversight mechanism.

In 2017, the NYCLU went so far as to withdraw our support for a City Council bill that had – at the NYPD’s request – been watered down to remove level one encounters from the list of scenarios in which officers would be required to identify themselves and offer business cards.

Now, the City Council has the opportunity to shine new light on these encounters and, for the first time, provide the public with a comprehensive accounting of all investigative encounters that take place throughout the city.

The How Many Stops Act is a package of two bills that will fill these data gaps. The first measure would require the NYPD to publicly report information on the number of level one, two and three encounters that its officers carry out, broken down by precinct and with additional information on the demographics of those who are impacted.

The second would strengthen existing reporting measures around instances in which an officer asks a person for consent to be searched when they otherwise don’t have a legal justification to do so. Among other provisions, the bill requires the department to collect more detailed information on whether officers are making use of language access services when seeking consent from people with limited English proficiency. Local law and department policy requires them to do this, but it’s unclear if officers are complying.

The data that the How Many Stops Act would generate is more critical than ever. Early in his administration, Mayor Adams announced the creation of “Neighborhood Safety Teams,” reviving the NYPD’s disbanded Street Crime Unit that was responsible for one of the most notorious police killings in the department’s history. The teams have a new uniform, and a new name, but they continue to focus on stops for low-level offenses. These are the types of dangerous units – and the types of stops – for which data is especially valuable.

The Adams’ administration also continues to insist – despite clear evidence to the contrary – that so-called “quality of life” policing, which aggressively targets low-level offenses and too often criminalizes poverty and homelessness, will somehow increase public safety, as opposed to increasing racially discriminatory policing.

At a time when we continue to overinvest in law enforcement to the exclusion of alternative investments to address and improve community safety and well-being, we don’t even have a comprehensive accounting of what that overinvestment translates to in terms of the number of New Yorkers who will find themselves interacting with armed police officers.

The How Many Stops Act, by itself, won’t put an end to our overreliance on policing. But it will better equip us to understand and push back on the scope of abusive and discriminatory police practices in New York City. And once we understand more fully the scope of the problem, we will be better positioned to advocate for alternatives to over-policing that actually support the needs of New Yorkers.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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